Tax for sports, music halls hangs by a thread

ATLANTA — The local effort to increase Macon and Bibb’s hotel-motel sales tax to fund the state halls of fame lived — narrowly — to fight another day Tuesday at the state Capitol.

An amendment tacking the penny increase onto another bill passed the state Senate on a 22-20 vote. State Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, offered the amendment, and both he and state Sen. Robert Brown, D-Macon, rose to support it.

The underlying bill, House Bill 903, would allow Atlanta to extend its own hotel-motel sales tax and raise money to upgrade, or replace, the Georgia Dome, home to the Atlanta Falcons. The Georgia sports and music halls of fame in downtown Macon are “just as important to the economic development of Middle Georgia as are these larger facilities we have in Atlanta,” Staton told senators.

Once amended, the bill passed the Senate easily, and it heads back to the House for further consideration.

But funding the halls has been particularly unpopular in the House. Supporters for the Georgia Dome legislation worried that tacking the halls of fame issue onto the bill could kill it, jeopardizing efforts to keep the Falcons in Atlanta long term.

“I’m pretty sure (the House) won’t” pass this bill now, state Sen. Don Balfour, who carried HB 903 in the Senate, said after the vote.

State Rep. Mark Burkhalter, HB 903’s original sponsor in the House, declined to comment on the matter. It was clear he wasn’t happy, though, and it seems all but certain that he will push the House to strip Staton’s amendment from the bill.

Legislation raising Macon and Bibb’s hotel-motel tax failed to come to the House floor this year, signaling a lack of support there. The state’s hotel industry and convention and visitors bureaus had lobbied against it, seeking to protect hotel-motel tax revenues for tourism promotion, instead of the halls.

But the halls, which are state owned and funded, need new revenue to remain open in the long run — and maybe in the short term, too. The House is expected to pass a fiscal 2011 budget tomorrow, and both halls are completely defunded in that proposal.

They were slated to split about $1 million in Gov. Sonny Perdue’s original budget proposal. Instead, the House zeroed them out, then inserted $650,000 into the budget to archive the state’s sports and music memorabilia collections. The music collection, at least, would move to the University of Georgia campus. It’s not clear from budget documents whether the sports collection would also move to Athens.

The budget subcommittee chairman who oversees the halls’ spending indicated Monday that the House hadn’t set aside money to care for the collections outside of Macon. But it’s included in the budget that passed the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday and heads to the House floor today.

Staton’s legislative maneuver kicks House Bill 903 — with the amendment for the halls — back to the House. If his amendment is indeed stripped away, it will be up to the Senate to decide just how important local funding is for the halls of fame when weighed against the need to eventually renovate or replace the Georgia Dome in the coming years.

Eventually, both the House and Senate must pass an identical bill for it to go to Perdue for his signature, which would finalize the issue. Proposals from the Bibb County Commission and NewTown Macon, which want to buy the halls from the state, also are in the mix.

“Far from over,” Staton said Tuesday. “Our House delegation now has to hold the line and use their influence” to protect the hotel-motel tax.

In the House, state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, said it’s going to be “a nasty fight.”

To contact writer Travis Fain, call 361-2702.