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Wednesday, 27 March 2013 13:03

Parrying between tourism interests slows progress on tourism tax bill

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The prospects of Haywood County’s tourism development tax increase making it through the General Assembly in Raleigh this year is highly likely — or perhaps highly unlikely. It depends on whom you ask.

 

Those for the tax say they are on the cusp of a compromise that will pave the way for the bill to go through. Those against the tax say it is dead.

There’s only one man, however, who actually knows. Whether the bill will live or die is ultimately up to Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin.

Davis said the hastily put forward proposal appeared to have widespread support at first, but backlash has erupted in its wake. That’s given him pause over whether it was properly vetted locally before landing in his lap in Raleigh.

“They hadn’t done their due diligence before asking us to bring forth the legislation,” he said.

Davis has parked the bill in neutral until competing tourism interests stop feuding and come to the table to line up behind one version of the bill.

“It may take them a while to get things lined up. We may wait until next year until they get their ducks in a row,” Davis said.

But Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, said with a little more work, they can zero in on a compromise — the process has just been a little backward.

“If we had a little more time and weren’t under the deadline, we may have gotten it right the first time,” Queen said. “We were trying to build consensus in the middle of the night to file a bill.”

County commissioners and tourism leaders called for the additional 2 percent tax on overnight lodging to help build new tourism attractions or improve existing ones. The 2 percent tax on overnight stays would bring in roughly $450,000 a year. 

The idea surfaced publicly in February. By then, it was already in the 11th hour, less than a month before the deadline to introduce bills in the General Assembly.

Proponents had to move, and move fast, to get it on the drawing board. The Haywood County tourism board and county commissioners hastily but unanimously endorsed the idea.

It was then shipped off to Raleigh in early March. State legislators Davis and Queen were called on to introduce the bill on Haywood County’s behalf and shepherd it through the General Assembly.

They obliged, but in hindsight got a little more than they bargained for.

“We got a little bit of pushback,” Queen said.

A brouhaha broke out between feuding tourism interests over just about every aspect of the funding raised by the tax. Who would decide how the money was spent? How much voice would Maggie Valley get? What about Canton? Would all the money be sucked up by one big project or spread around?

Since time was of essence, a placeholder bill was filed with bare bones language — under the assumption it would be massaged and hashed out later and amended.

But the fast pace irked Maggie Valley lodging owners, who have since voiced their opposition. While the tax is intended to boost tourism by creating new attractions, some lodging owners fear the additional 2 percent tax on hotel bills will keep tourists from coming here.

“It moved too fast and is being shoved down our throats,” said Sue Koziol, a member of the Maggie Valley Lodging Association.

The crux of the controversy: Maggie tourism interests want the biggest seat at the table when picking what projects get funded. But the rest of the county isn’t ready to hand over the keys to Maggie. Maggie can call shotgun, perhaps, but can’t have the driver’s seat all to itself. 

 

Try, try again

Meanwhile, a flurry of new wording has been circulated from one end of the county to the other in the ensuing weeks in an attempt to satisfy the parties.

It has proved challenging, however. Many of the caveats being demanded are mutually exclusive. What leaders in Canton want is diametrically opposed to what leaders in Maggie Valley want. And the county commissioners want to keep their eye on the big picture of economic development countywide and forget town-centric politics altogether.

So Queen and Davis ended up playing the role of matchmaker and mediator.

“When we get agreement on one end we lose a little on the other,” Queen said, prompting another round of rewrites.

Queen isn’t ready to give up and feels they are on the verge of a compromise.

“We are working on a perfecting amendment to make it a consensus-building bill,” Queen said. “We are treading water to let the local ideas and opinions congeal.”

At the same time, Queen said the ball is now in the hands of local leaders.

“If everyone is going to get mad at us and can’t get along then neither Jim nor I will push this bill. We will just let it sit,” Queen said. “There is a real incentive for the local tourist business to get it together.”

Davis has gotten tired of being in the middle of a tug-of-war.

“I am not going to be the arbiter or the referee. That went on for so long that I finally said, ‘You need to figure it locally,’” Davis said. “Once they get all the stakeholders on board I will usher the legislation through the Senate.”

Queen and Davis say they will pull the trigger on the bill once there is consensus, compromise and agreement at the local level. 

That could be hard to achieve. A faction of Maggie lodging owners have dug in and said they will never support a tourism tax increase (see related article)

“There will be some that don’t want the 2 cents period. They don’t see the benefit of it,” Queen said. “Consensus does not have to be 100 percent.”

Davis said those in favor of the tax need to win their critics over.

“They will have to give a compelling argument to the stakeholders. If not the bill will not survive,” Davis said.

It’s unclear, however, how much critical mass the opponents have. Canton Town Manager Al Matthews said a vocal minority is creating the illusion of widespread opposition and scaring off the state legislators.

“They are getting hammered by an extremely vocal minority,” Matthews said.

Davis said he doesn’t have a scientific way to measure when the majority has reached a consensus.

But, “I’ll know it when I see it,” Davis said. “They are not there yet.”

Versions of the bill are continuing to bounce back and forth between the parties this week.

Matthews said he understands Davis’ issue.

“He has worked very hard on this and caught a lot of heat,” Matthews said. “His condition was that all the areas come together and have a unified stance. It is going to take compromise.”

But Maggie Alderman Mike Matthews said they might need a cooling off period before trying to make another go of it. 

“Now we can go back to the drawing board,” Mike Matthews said.

Mike Matthews is among those who believe the tax could potentially be a good thing — but wants built-in guarantees that the tourism projects that get funded would help Maggie Valley.

Mike Matthews said so many versions of the bill have been bouncing around that he’s skeptical the end product will actually be what Maggie wants.

“You bring up issues and express concerns and then you’d see a new draft that fixed them, but then the next day you would see a different version,” Mike Matthews said.

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