New bill would grant more flexibility in using tourism tax dollars

State Rep. Anna Eskamani files new bill to use tourism tax dollars for public facilities, roads and affordable housing

ORLANDO, Fla. – In 2019, before the pandemic hit - Orlando’s tourism was breaking records, bringing in $75 billion in economic impact. Now State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, wants the tourism development tax dollars collected to have more flexibility so they can be used for things like public facilities, public transportation, roads and even affordable housing that benefits the tourism industry.

“The reality is that Floridians don’t like taxes and a lot of us don’t like new taxes, and so finding a solution to solve this crisis does cost money. But the question is, how do we identify sources of revenue without cutting current programs that are central and without raising taxes?” Eskamani said.

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That’s why Eskamani filed House Bill 6075 in November.

The bill, according to Eskamani, will provide for more flexibility in how TDT funds, which come from lodging taxes, are used. As it stands now, counties can’t use TDT funds for things like roads, transit or housing in the tourism district unless it spends at least 40% on advertising. Documents provided by the Orange County Comptroller shows right now Orange County spends about 30%, and about $57 million on advertising through Visit Orlando.

“We are saying get rid of the 40% cap, so governments have more flexibility,” Eskamani said.

Eskamani said this idea spurred from a controversial 2019 vote by the Orange County Board of County Commission to pay $125 million in taxpayer money to expand Kirkman Road to Universal’s new Epic Universe, which had residents in petitions and at meetings, asking why the theme park or even tourism tax dollars couldn’t cover the costs. Then, county officials say the plan was already in place to expand that road and Universal did contribute $160 million to the project.

“This prevented us from using TDT money to pay for the road for Universal Studios and this was a major controversy that basically the public was subsidizing for a major company,” Eskamani said.

The proposed legislation is also garnering support from the new Orlando YIMBY (Yes, in my backyard) movement, led by Co-Chair Austin Valle. The group has created a petition hoping to gain more support from local governmental leaders.

“As soon as the threshold is taken away, then we could start to reallocate funds that are going towards billboards in Ohio and instead use that money on infrastructure that is so badly needed here,” Valle said.

News 6 reached out to Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings for comment on the proposed legislation. He declined an interview but his office sent the following statement in support of more local government control.

“What we need is support from our legislative delegation to allow greater home rule for local government to have discretion from the State in making local decisions on spending locally generated tax dollars - period,” wrote Mayor Jerry Demings.

News 6 also reached out to tourism industry leaders, with no immediate response.

HB 6075 has officially been filed and through some committee meetings but has yet to have a companion bill filed in the Senate. The legislative session begins in January.