ATLANTA — The effort to increase Macon and Bibb County’s hotel-motel tax to support the sports and music halls of fame, which was already bowing under the weight of complicated state laws controlling the tax, suffered a major blow Thursday with the public revelation that two large lobbying groups will work against the effort.
That development is likely to expand a local issue into a statewide fight. It brings new political dynamics to bear on an effort to keep the taxpayer-funded halls of fame financially viable and located in downtown Macon despite state budget cuts and a mandate to wean the halls from state subsidies.
Lobbyists for the Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association and the Tourism Development Alliance of Georgia said Thursday they’re against local legislators’ proposal to add a penny to the local tax to support the halls and the Douglass Theatre in downtown Macon. The groups are concerned about the precedent even a local change could set and think state law requires any new hotel-motel tax revenue to go to a convention and visitors bureau or similar entity, and not attractions such as the halls of fame.
“There is no doubt that war has been declared on us by the CVBs,” state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, said Thursday after he and other legislators held a brief, and often tense, meeting with the group’s lobbyists at the state Capitol.
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Laws surrounding these taxes are so complicated that state Rep. Larry O’Neal, a tax attorney and chairman of the House committee that writes tax law, called them “almost totally dysfunctional” earlier this week. It’s not clear how the money can be divvied up, but it is clear that tourism officials across the state want to make sure convention and visitors bureaus’ claims to the funding are protected.
Another plan in the works?
Another way to help fund the halls of fame may be emerging, but it’s no guarantee.
State Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, has filed legislation that would change the way that another sales tax — the special purpose local option sales tax — can be spent. Stephens wants to use some penny SPLOST revenue to fund arts programs, assuming local voters approve the spending in a referendum.
But current state law says that SPLOSTs can only be used to buy equipment or build things, not to fund ongoing operations costs. Stephens bill, House Bill 1049, would change that, allowing a portion of each penny — a tenth at a time — to fund operations at local museums, gardens and various arts programs.
Joy Walstrum, a lobbyist for the Tourism Development Alliance, said a tenth of a penny tax could generate more than $3 million a year for the halls of fame and other programs in Bibb County. Local numbers seem to bear that out. Macon Mayor Robert Reichert said Thursday that a penny sales tax raises about $30 million a year in the county.
“We can guarantee that we can keep those facilities in Macon long term,” Walstrum said. “This would generate enough money to make a difference.”
Stephens’ bill has bipartisan support and was referred to a House subcommittee for discussion Thursday. Walstrum and Ron Fennel, who lobbies for the hotel industry in Georgia, said they would support Stephens’ bill and work against the Macon-Bibb effort to raise the hotel-motel tax.
This “either or” situation means Bibb County legislators will have to dig in for a fight, said state Sen. Robert Brown, D-Macon. The general consensus among local legislators Thursday seemed to be that they would keep pushing for an increase in the local hotel-motel tax, which is likely to require a majority vote in both the state House and the Senate.
If Stephens’ bill can be passed as well, so much the better for museums and other arts programs around the state, they said.
“I can’t sit around and wait on something that might happen,” said state Rep. David Lucas, D-Macon. “We got to do what we got to do. And what they need to realize is it’s a two-way street. And if they’re going to fight us, we’re going to fight them.”
Peake says SPLOST list might need to wait
Even if Stephens’ bill passes, Reichert said, it may come too late to provide any immediate help for the halls of fame. He said he and Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart are close to finalizing a deal that will lay out what the next SPLOST will pay for. It’s “mighty late in the process” to try and wedge funding for the arts into a spending plan where the available revenue is already “all spoken for,” Reichert said.
The vote on that SPLOST is tentatively scheduled for this summer. Another SPLOST vote wouldn’t come around for several years.
But Peake said Hart and Reichert might have to “put the brakes” on that process and see how things unfold.
This new fight is not necessarily a surprise. Lucas had warned last year, when disagreement over the tax increase among the local legislative delegation kept it from passing, that convention and visitors bureaus across the state might push back against the effort. And Janice Marshall, president and CEO of the Macon-Bibb County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Thursday that her organization warned the delegation about this problem last year.
But the issue bubbled to the surface Thursday as lobbyists sat down with Lucas, Peake and Brown, as well as state Sen. Cecil Staton and state Rep. Tony Sellier. Walstrum said the state’s attorney general has been involved and that he has said the hotel-motel tax can only go to groups that “promote tourism” such as CVBs.
“That’s not what an attraction (such as a hall of fame) does,” Walstrum said.
But it appears that the attorney general has not issued a formal opinion on the matter, but a non-binding advisory letter. That letter is complex but at one point it states that at least some portion of hotel-motel tax revenue can only be spent through a contract with “the state, a department of state government, a state authority” and several other entities, including CVBs.
That would seem to include the sports and music halls, since they are state museums overseen by state authorities.
O’Neal, R-Warner Robins, put some of his considerable political weight behind that kind of an interpretation Thursday.
“I can’t think of anything, frankly, that would be more in promotion of tourism (than the halls of fame),” he said.
Reichert agreed, saying he hopes something can be worked out to help fund the downtown Macon museums.
“I just don’t see why it has to go to the CVB,” he said.
To contact writer Travis Fain, call 361-2702.