With the first budget surplus in years, Gov. Jan Brewer said Friday she wants lawmakers to restore funding to promote tourism.
The governor said the Arizona Office of Tourism has had to limp along for years solely with proceeds earmarked from the state's share of tribal gaming profits and taxes on car rentals and hotel rooms. The result, Brewer said, is the state is not doing all it can to get visitors - and their dollars - from other states and countries.
She proposes to set aside $7 million specifically for marketing.
"It will enable the agency to explore new programs, such as expanding the Office of Tourism targeted city advertising campaign into a national campaign," she said. "It will lead Arizona's tourism industry into emerging visitor markets such as China, South Korea and Brazil."
But Brewer said some of the cash will be available for "cooperative advertising programs" with rural communities to encourage those who make it to the Phoenix and Tucson areas to venture out further.
The governor said she sees the funding as an investment that will pay dividends.
"This strategic initiative will create and sustain jobs, build revenue and open new doors for economic development," she said. "In essence, tourism continues to mean business, now and for the future."
State Tourism Director Sherry Henry said those international tourists are particularly important to attract, saying they spend an average of $4,000 a person when they visit.
The push comes as Arizona is once again in the national news over immigration issues.
Attorneys for the state will be before the U.S. Supreme Court this spring defending provisions of SB 1070, which requires police to check the immigration status of those they have stopped when there is "reasonable suspicion" they are in the country illegally. And the U.S. Department of Justice just this week announced it had evidence of racial profiling by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department.
Brewer brushed aside questions of how that kind of publicity will work against efforts to promote tourism.
"I don't think SB 1070 had a tremendous impact on our economy," the governor said.
"I think that, in fact, it might have encouraged people," Brewer continued. "And we know that people did make Arizona a destination because they wanted to stand tall and support Arizona in our quest to get our borders secure."
But there is evidence that groups which plan conventions, often years ago, cancelled plans or simply are refusing to even consider Arizona for future events.
Henry said there always will be distracting issues.
"Whatever challenges may be out there, whether they're political, whether they're weather, whether it's the economy, we're about promoting tourism," she said. "That's where we should keep our focus. We will continue to tell our same message, that Arizona is still the same and always will be wonderful, premier tourism destination, whether that's for business, whether it's for pleasure, whether it's to visit family and friends."
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said the proposal is likely to get approved.
An improving economy and a commensurate increase in sales taxes is anticipated by the governor's office to generate a nearly $760 million surplus, even after the state accounts for increases in the number of children in school, more people enrolled in the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System and more people behind bars.
But while Kavanagh is willing to support that tourism funding, he will not be entertaining most other requests.
He pointed out that the temporary one-cent hike in state sales taxes, approved last year by voters, will expire at the end of May 2013. That will cut about $1 billion a year in income.
Kavanagh wants what he calls a "hurricane fund."
He said that would be made up of the anticipated $500 million the state will have left over this fiscal year, coupled with the lion's share of next year's anticipated surplus.
"So instead of having a fiscal cliff, we'll just have a little curb that we can easily manage," Kavanagh said.