Legislation would make 'blacklisting' of cities unlawful
July 24, 2009
Washington, D.C. – With Orlando, Fla. and a few other U.S. locales apparently on a so-called blacklist of sites for government meetings and conferences, one U.S. senator now says he’s going after any agency that deliberately discourages travel to Florida.
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported Wednesday that several federal agencies, including the departments of Justice and Agriculture, have issued guidelines encouraging employees to hold meetings and conferences only in cities that are “non-resort locations.”
As a result, the WSJ said, cities such as Orlando, Fla., and Las Vegas are being shunned for places like St. Louis and Milwaukee. Now hotels and businesses are seeing an even steeper decline than they already were experiencing from the economic recession, according to an Orlando Sentinel article published yesterday.
“It’s one thing if an agency decides a conference should be canceled to save taxpayers’ money given the bad economy; it’s another thing if it’s legitimate travel and you then avoid certain cities just because of where they are,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson told the Associated Press. “Most big cities in Florida are near some tourist attraction or beach. But they also have some of the finest and most affordable hotels and conference facilities.”
The Florida Democrat today unveiled legislation that would make it unlawful for federal government agencies to design travel policies that blacklist U.S. cities based on their locale or because they’re seen as tourism destinations. The effort was to be announced publicly after a meeting in downtown Orlando between Nelson and Gary Sain, president and CEO, Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau; Richard Maladecki, president, Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association; Tom Ackert, Executive Director, Orange County Convention Center; and, Lex Veech, Community and Government Relations, Orange County Convention Center.
Nelson said he intends to offer his legislation as an amendment to the budget of any agency with a travel policy that steers business away from cities. It also could take the form of an amendment to a broader travel bill still pending in Congress called the Travel Promotion Act, which would promote the U.S. internationally as a travel destination.
Nelson could have a powerful ally on this issue. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid is from Nevada – home to the huge hotel and casino industry in Las Vegas. Earlier this month, Reid wrote President Obama to express concern in the wake of news reports about a government prohibition on travel to resort areas.
Obama’s chief of staff reportedly wrote back saying agency travel policies are focused on cost and efficiency, and not on specific destinations.
However, the WSJ reported that some agencies appear to be instituting guidelines on where events should be held. And, the newspaper said, an Agriculture Department employee told an Orlando conference planner in an e-mail that “I think Orlando got put on the list of not go because of the perception that it is a resort and vacation area.”
Nelson’s not the only Florida lawmaker upset by the so-called blacklisting. Eight House members representing Florida and Nevada on Thursday sent a letter to the acting U.S. comptroller seeking an investigation of policies used to determine where to hold meetings.