Halls of fame get big boost by hotel-motel tax approval

ATLANTA — After a session full of tough setbacks for the Georgia sports and music halls of fame, local legislators pulled off a big victory Wednesday evening, getting approval to raise Macon and Bibb’s hotel-motel tax to help fund the halls.

It had been an uphill battle, with only a parliamentary maneuver in the state Senate earlier this week keeping hope alive for the measure. But a key opponent turned proponent Wednesday, and the penny tax increase sailed through the House of Representatives, 127-18.

It was tacked to a measure that would allow Atlanta to extend its own hotel-motel tax to fund a new football stadium, or renovate the current Georgia Dome. That was a top priority for former interim Speaker of the House Mark Burkhalter, R-Johns Creek, who was initially upset that the Macon-Bibb tax had been pasted to his bill by state Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon.

But Burkhalter changed his tune and spoke in favor of the change Wednesday evening in the House. He said Macon deserves a chance to pay for the halls as they are weaned off state dollars.

It was “a topsy-turvy day” for local legislators pushing the bill, state Rep. Allen Peake said after the vote. “At the beginning of the day I didn’t think we’d get this thing through.”

This was final passage for the bill, which means the tax money will start flowing once Gov. Sonny Perdue signs it, and Peake said the governor has indicated he will do so.

The penny tax would also benefit the historic Douglass Theatre in downtown Macon.

Peake, R-Macon, and other local legislators have been pushing this issue since the session started in January after failing to come together on the issue last year. Atlanta legislators and the state’s hotel industry and convention and visitors bureaus had worked against it. But that push was made more difficult once the issue was tied to Atlanta’s hotel-motel tax, which proponents say is needed to keep the Atlanta Falcons happy.

The new funding will help, but Macon’s hold on the halls is still in danger, largely because they’ve been completely defunded in the state budget that also passed the House on Wednesday. Staton has said he hopes to get at least some of that money back as the Senate makes its changes to the budget.

Many think the halls, which exist in Macon on a shared $1 million annual state subsidy, would be better off in Atlanta, where they might draw more visitors. Cutting off state funding and limiting local funding options would help speed that move.