|By Sara K. Clarke, Orlando
SentinelMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 30, 2012--With the start of a new year, Central Florida's hospitality industry is crafting a 2013 wish list: What it wants from this year's session of the Florida Legislature.
Among the priorities for the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association: maintaining or increasing annual funds for Visit Florida, the state's quasi-public marketing agency, and ensuring that counties remain forced to spend the bulk of their tourist-development taxes on tourism promotion.
The local trade group, which represents the nation's second-largest hotel market, also wants to keep local municipalities from regulating employee benefits -- such as an active initiative in Orange County that would require paid sick leave for all employees of companies with 15 or more workers.
Florida's 2013 legislative session starts March 5, but business interests are already scoping out the scene and setting priorities for the laws they would like to see enacted -- and those they hope to block.
TOURISM PROMOTION. Earlier this year, the state's tourism industry scored a public-funds victory when lawmakers gave $54 million to Visit Florida, the quasi-private agency responsible for marketing the state to tourists and business travelers. That was more than a 50 percent increase from 2011 -- when the agency received a 31 percent increase from state -- despite deep budget cuts imposed in other areas, from state universities to hospitals serving Medicaid patients.
"We're hoping to be able to, obviously, maintain that and to potentially look at an additional increase," said Richard Maladecki, president of the local hotel association.
RESORT TAX. As for the tourist-development tax that Orange and other counties add to short-term rentals, the hotel group is pushing to keep the revenue dedicated to tourism promotion.
Current state law severely restricts how counties can spend their hotel-tax revenue, requiring them to use it primarily on television advertising, convention centers, sports arenas and other uses that chiefly benefit tourism-related businesses. Lawmakers have occasionally loosened the definition slightly, such as last year, when they added aquariums to the list of eligible uses.
But the tourism lobby is vehemently opposed to any plans to open up the levy, often referred to as the state's "resort tax," to broader uses such as road work, school construction or law enforcement. A few years ago, the Florida Keys tried to get permission to use a small fraction of the tax revenue there to build affordable, worker housing -- only to see that idea crushed by the state's hoteliers and other travel businesses and trade groups.
"CFHLA strongly advocates the protection of the original intent of this 'bed tax,'" the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association said in a document outlining its 2013 priorities.
MANDATORY EMPLOYEE BENEFITS. Orlando-area hoteliers also don't want Florida cities and counties expanding their control of employee benefits in the private sector into areas such as vacation or sick time.
The industry's stance against such mandatory benefits was evident during a public initiative in Orange County that would require many businesses to provide employees with paid sick time. Backers of the proposed county charter amendment obtained enough signatures earlier this year to send it to a public referendum, though the county commission voted to delay the initiative so they could review its wording, which kept it off the Nov. 6 general-election ballot.
During testimony before the Orange County Commission regarding the proposed charter amendment, Maladecki argued that requiring tourism-related businesses to provide paid sick time would drive up their costs and make it harder to compete with businesses in rival destinations. He also predicted that businesses would have to reduce other benefits or eliminate jobs to compensate for the costs of paid sick time.
The association is hoping a bill prohibiting such mandates on a municipal level might surface this year in Tallahassee, though if that doesn't happen, Maladecki said, any mandates need to be considered on a statewide basis, not locally.
"It is very difficult with 67 counties in the state of Florida to have different laws in each of those counties," he said.
CASINO GAMBLING. The Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association is again opposing any move within the Legislature to expand gambling in the state. The possibility of multiple casino resorts in South Florida became a flashpoint during the 2012 legislative session after a Malaysian gambling company, the Genting Group, floated a plan to build a multibillion-dollar casino complex on the Miami waterfront.
CFHLA said its opposition to additional gambling in Florida is based on a desire by the local industry, built around Walt Disney World and the region's other theme parks, to maintain a "family friendly" atmosphere and reputation.
The association said it doesn't expect gambling legislation to resurface in 2013 but said it will be actively lobbying legislators, who have promised to study the effects of expanded gambling.
ONLINE-TRAVEL TAXES. County governments in Florida have long been fighting online-only travel companies, such as Expedia Inc. and Orbitz Worldwide Inc., over how to apply taxes, including the tourist-development tax, to the rooms they buy in bulk from hotels and then resell to travelers.
The local hotel association sides with local governments in supporting legislation that would require online-only travel companies to pay the taxes on the full room rates that they charge customers, rather than on the wholesale rates they pay the hotels. But some of the region's big theme parks, particularly Walt Disney World, side with the online-travel industry.
SCHOOL-YEAR CALENDAR. The association is also standing firm in its opposition to any changes to the start of Florida's school year, which state law now stipulates cannot occur any earlier than 14 days before Labor Day.
In addition to wanting to protect and extend the peak summer-vacation travel season, CFHLA says that putting off the start of school in Florida also results in "a reduction of non-instructional costs to school districts."
IMMIGRATION. Finally, the group says it won't support state-level changes to existing immigration laws.
Although there's been little indication yet that the issue will be raised next year in the Legislature, CFHLA fears that even talk of immigration laws along the lines of those enacted and upheld in Arizona -- where state and local law enforcement must now attempt to determine the immigration status of people they stop and suspect of being in the country illegally -- could hurt Florida's travel industry, especially its convention-and-meetings businesses.
Orlando, in addition to being the second-biggest U.S. hotel market, is home to the nation's second-largest convention center.
"Just the discussion of it [immigration] hits the convention airwaves, and it hurts business for the state of Florida," Maladecki said.
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