The Wyoming Senate roundly rejected a proposed statewide lodging tax that would have created an independent funding source for the state Office of Tourism.
The vote also killed amendments designed to tweak Teton County’s local lodging tax to make it more palatable to residents riled by too much promotion and too little flexibility to offset visitor impacts.
Though the tax breezed through the Wyoming House, the fiscally conservative Senate quashed it Monday in a 19-7 vote. The bill would have imposed a 5 percent tax on lodging services across Wyoming, with 2 percent going to local governments and the rest to the state’s tourism arm.
But most relevant for Teton County, House Bill 66 was the vessel for local lawmakers’ improvements to the lodging tax. Throughout the election season last fall they promised to fix it in Cheyenne if voters would renew it.
Rep. Andy Schwartz, D-Teton, came as close as politically possible, but his efforts ultimately proved fruitless.
“I’m pissed,” he said. “This was the solution. I said I’d do it, I did it, and I got screwed.”
In November, after months of public debate, 60 percent of Teton County voters approved a 2 percent lodging tax. The other 40 percent, distressed at ever-rising tourism levels, rejected it.
Coincidentally, the 60-40 split of yea- and naysayers mirrors the reason for its controversy: Sixty percent of lodging tax revenue goes toward promoting Jackson Hole, drawing a growing stream of visitors that strains the infrastructure and patience of the region. Just 40 percent, or $4.4 million in 2018, goes to local government to mitigate the impacts of tourism.
With House Bill 66 died an amendment from Schwartz that would have given town and county officials more flexibility in how they use the 60 percent that is currently designated for promotion.
His revision would have broadened the definition of promotional funding to include “staging of events, educational materials, and other specific tourism-related objectives, including those identified as likely to facilitate tourism or enhance the visitor experience.”
That, he hoped, would temper the tax’s fallout and make it more acceptable to critics. All went smoothly in the House of Representatives, which passed the bill 44-16 with his amendment intact. In fact, Schwartz was surprised at the number of legislators who liked it. He thought it would be a point of contention.
But no one took issue with the semantic details of expanding promotional funding. Instead the senators threw out the entire lodging tax over fears it would blunt Wyoming’s competitive edge over other states. In so doing, they made an incidental sacrifice of Schwartz’s solution to one of his constituents’ biggest grievances.
“I thought it was a disaster,” he said. “I don’t know what happened.”
Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Teton, who also pushed for the lodging tax in the November election, said he was “disheartened” by its failure. He said he had heard rumors the lodging tax could be resurrected, but, barring any last-minute legislative acrobatics, it appears the 60-40 status quo will remain — at least until next year’s legislative session.
Even if the bill got another shot this year, Gierau said it likely wouldn’t make a difference after a resounding 7-19 loss: “When it got to its zenith we had 12 votes [in favor],” he said. “If you don’t have the votes you don’t have the votes.”
Meanwhile, the Teton County Travel and Tourism Board — which exists to manage the promotional side of lodging tax revenue — is looking into a “Sustainability Management Plan.”
In a letter to the Town Council and Board of County Commissioners, members of the Travel and Tourism Board said that “with the recent election ensuring the Lodging Tax in Teton County for the next four years and the potential legislation that may create a permanent lodging tax, the lodging tax board recently held a retreat to discuss our longer-term strategy.”
That strategy appears to involve creating a plan to guide the board “as we seek to improve our sustainable practices,” and the letter asks the elected officials to budget for one in the coming fiscal year.
Kate Sollitt, executive director of the board, could not be reached for comment by press time.