State law dictates that lodging tax revenues be divvied up with 60 percent spent on tourism promotion and 40 percent used for mitigating visitor impacts. At a debate Wednesday evening, a lodging tax proponent and opponent disagreed over whether renewing the tax is the best way to change that split.
“Going back to Cheyenne and saying, ‘Actually, we’re going to vote down $7 million in funding for our own county, and, by the way, can you change the law so it works better for us?’” said Anna Olson, the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce director and a lodging tax supporter. “It’s a dead-in-the-water approach. We believe ... collecting the lodging tax will allow us to go down there and negotiate potential change in the verbiage of the law.”
Bill Phelps, chair of the political action committee Enough is Enough, which opposes the lodging tax, disagreed, saying that rejecting the tax is the way to secure a new revenue scheme in which 100 percent of funds can go toward mitigating visitor impacts.
“If we approve it, we have told the Legislature we like it where it is,” Phelps said. “They’re going to say, ‘Why should we change it when the community has just agreed to do this?’ ”
He argued that when legislator Clarene Law negotiated changing the split from 90 percent for promotion down to 60 percent in the late 1990s, the state allowed the change because Teton County voters had rejected the tax several times at the 90 percent promotion level, showing their displeasure.
“What we did the last time is what we need to do again, which is to reject this and provide some real motivation to get a genuine change,” Phelps said. “The only time they’ve ever fixed it is after killing it.”
Olson also argued that the lodging tax revenues that go to town and county budgets are necessary for services like ambulances and the Teton County/Jackson Parks and Recreation Department. She noted that all but one sitting elected official supports the lodging tax.
“Will they survive without those funds? Sure,” Olson said. “But why should we choose to make them?”
Phelps, on the other hand, called the idea that losing lodging tax revenues would mean cutting essential services “a red herring.” He said the town and county managed without the tax from 1994 to 2010.
For Phelps, his main gripe with the lodging tax is the requirement to spend money on drawing tourism, even in the “offseasons.”
“We are not opposed to collecting a tax on tourists,” he said. “We’re opposed to spending it on promotion we don’t need.”
Olson argued that the volume of offseason visitors is so minimal compared with summer that it doesn’t stretch town and county services. She also said that some of the 60 percent earmarked for “promotion” goes toward helping fund community events and entities like the SHIFT festival, the Riverwind Foundation and the Chamber of Commerce’s visitor services centers.
A full video of the forum, including a discussion with Jackson Town Council candidates, is available on KHOL 89.1’s Facebook page. The forum was sponsored by the library, the League of Women Voters, the Jackson Hole News&Guide, KHOL and WyoFile.