A new push to tap deeper into Orange County’s hotel-tax revenues for about $60 million for arts and sports venues and expanded tourism marketing has reignited a debate over why the bed tax can’t pay for other needs.
State Rep. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, plans to ask Attorney General Pam Bondi for an opinion on whether tourist taxes can be used for roads, public safety or transit needs in tourism areas. If the answer is no, Stewart said she might file legislation aimed at expanding how bed taxes are spent.
“The general public feels strongly that there has to be other ways to spend that tourist tax,” Stewart said.
But the proposal would face a tough road in Tallahassee.
Since the resort tax was created in 1978, state law has limited its uses to paying for convention centers, visitor-marketing efforts, sports facilities or cultural attractions such as museums. In Orange, most hotel-tax revenues have been spent on expanding the county’s massive convention center.
Six years ago, though, elected leaders in Orlando and Orange County approved a $1.1 billion venue package that included a new Amway Center arena, downtown performing-arts center and renovations to the Florida Citrus Bowl stadium. Increases in the resort tax would pay for most of the overall effort.
The projects were bundled, in part, to avoid any one being left out. Now sports and business boosters are again discussing a plan to tap the county’s tourist-tax revenues for another package deal. It includes:
–$20 million in tourist taxes for a soccer stadium that initially would cost about $85 million. The project is being billed as essential to landing a Major League Soccer franchise.
–An additional $12 million or more in tourist taxes for the Citrus Bowl. The $175 million renovation was approved in 2007 but still has not begun, and delays already have driven the cost to an estimated $190 million. Stadium boosters say even more money is needed for better amenities to attract games.
–$25 million in additional tourist taxes for the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, which was split into two phases. The extra money would help finish the last of three performance halls on the half-billion-dollar project.
–The final piece of the latest package could be an as-yet-unspecified amount of additional money to boost ad campaigns aimed at vacationers and conventioneers.
Supporters of each project are banking on the recent rebound of the county’s bed tax, which puts a 6 percent levy on every hotel bill. The tax has climbed from $121.4 million from last fiscal year to $128.8 million so far this year, a 6.1 percent spike.
Orange Mayor Teresa Jacobs said she plans to bring all four items to her board in August. Commissioners also start budget talks next week, and a discussion about funding for the Lynx bus system is set for Tuesday.
Denise Diaz, executive director of Central Florida Jobs With Justice, said the venue discussion is frustrating because her group is often told there is no money to maintain or expand bus routes that tourism workers rely on. For example, the Lynx bus routes known as Downtown Disney Direct are often crowded, don’t run late enough or are so full they have to pass people by, the group says.
“We’re floored at how all these other things are being looked at,” Diaz said. “The crisis is there, and I don’t understand why they aren’t being creative and diversifying” tourist-tax spending.
Other communities do spend tourist taxes for local needs. Las Vegas, for example, uses bed taxes for schools, police, roads and more.
But Florida lawmakers have been largely reluctant to broaden the use of the tax. Okaloosa County this year failed in its attempt to use its bed tax to pay lifeguards. Legislators did approve a bill to allow aquarium funding.
State Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, once campaigned on expanding the use of tourist taxes. But after push-back from tourism interests, he abandoned the fight.
“I don’t see any changes happening anytime soon,” Gardiner told the Sentinel in March. He would not comment for this story.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and a Walt Disney World spokesman also would not weigh in on the issue. The mayor’s spokeswoman said Dyer first wants “more input from the stakeholders.”
When asked, Jacobs suggested other options, such as securing a $2 rental-car surcharge for transit. That proposal also has gone nowhere in the GOP-controlled Legislature in recent years.
“Even though it [the tourist tax] sounds like a large amount of money, if you do start using it for broader purposes, it dissipates rather quickly,” Jacobs said.
Stewart and others say that’s out of step with the public. As far back as 2001, a Sentinel poll found that residents by a nearly 3-to-1 margin wanted to change state law to allow tourism taxes also to be spent on roads and schools.
And in Orange, Commissioner Jennifer Thompson, who plans to run for re-election next year, said by email she supports “a candid discussion” with the tourism industry and lawmakers “about dedicating a small portion [of tourist taxes] to help pay for transit needs.”
Her potential opponent, Sean Ashby, said he would also back using bed taxes for tourism-related public-safety needs.
“That’s obviously a change that needs to take place,” Ashby said.
(c)2013 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.