FILE - Sen. Jason Pizzo, 2019, Florida

Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, speaks during a senate special session on Wednesday Oct. 23, 2019, in Tallahassee, Fla. 

(The Center Square) – In 2019, Florida attracted 131 million out-of-state visitors who contributed a collective $97 billion to the state’s economy and generated 1.6 million jobs.

In 2020, 86.714 million out-of-state visitors in Florida contributed about $70 billion to the state’s economy, according to preliminary annual and fourth-quarter numbers posted Monday by Visit Florida, the state’s tourist marketing agency.

The 34% decline is the lowest annual visitor total since 2010, according to the agency, aggravating employment instability for an estimated 40 percent of Florida’s leisure/hospitality workforce.

The near-30% decline in 2020 sales tax receipts generated by tourism, which usually constitute about 15 percent of Florida’s annual sales tax collections, will have profound implications at least through 2024, warn economists.

“No one is going to argue that tourism is not the largest industry in the state,” Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Palm Harbor, told the Senate Commerce & Tourism Committee Monday. “We live by it or we will die by it.”

That is why Hooper said he is sponsoring Senate Bill 778, which would ensure Visit Florida lives beyond 2023 and the agency can carry unused funds from one budget year into another.

“I believe anything we can do that attracts tourism back and revitalizes Florida’s economic outlook is money well-spent, well-invested,” Hooper said.

House Republicans, particularly former House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, questioned Visit Florida’s necessity after the state-subsidized agency signed a $1 million deal with rapper Pitbull, an $11.6 million deal with celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse and a $2.875 million contract with an auto-racing team without the Legislature’s input, spurring bills in three successive sessions seeking to disband it.

But the pandemic has confirmed the agency’s value in reaching out-of-state travelers, especially from Canada — Florida’s 1.286 million Canadian visitors in 2020 represented a 64.5 percent year-to-year drop — and Europe, supporters contend.

With air traffic to the state down 34 percent, Visit Florida needs to amplify it is safe to visit the Sunshine State, Hooper said.

“Whatever we can do to encourage not only the 22 million of us that travel intrastate, but 131 million who hopefully will come back and visit what we have to offer, cannot be overlooked,” he said. “And we will not recover economically until that piece of that economy returns to near normalcy or normalcy.”

SB 778 was approved 10-1 by the Senate Commerce & Tourism Committee. It next goes before the Senate Transportation, Tourism & Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee. It is not on the panel’s Feb. 17 meeting agenda.

Its House companion, House Bill 675, filed by Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, on Feb. 2, has not been assigned to committees.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, the lone dissenter, said with the state facing a “scarcity of dollars” it doesn’t make “good fiscal sense” to allow an agency to roll over unused dollars.

“I think we can get a Super Bowl winning quarterback, probably for free, to make a lot of good pitches for the state of Florida as opposed to paying some people,” Pizzo said. “I need to see the real accounting and forensics on this.”

Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association General Counsel Samantha Padgett said passing SB 778 would allow Visit Florida to make long-term plans without having to “fight for their life every single year.”

Americans for Prosperity-Florida Policy Director Phillip Suderman said the state should stay out of the marketing business.

“The role of government is not to act as an ad agency, and it should instead focus on the core function of government that society needs to operate,” he said. “Visit Florida is not one of those vital roles.”