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Flurry of tourism funding issues on Pennsylvania lawmakers' docket for fall

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A bill from a York County lawmaker that would authorize nine counties to raise their hotel taxes beyond their current caps is just the beginning of what lawmakers are discussing for tourism promotion before the House returns to session in Harrisburg next month.

In fact, Republican state Rep. Ron Miller has two bills for raising his home county's rate: One is a version of his legislation from the 2011-12 session specific to York County, which did not pass, and the other is the larger nine-county effort.

The state has authorized counties through various pieces of enabling legislation to tax hotel room stays in their respective jurisdictions, and some in recent years have gone back to the legislature for permission to raise their rates higher amid dwindled state funding and other factors.

Adams and York counties have been among them with legislation.

Adams County was among the jurisdictions that received legislative approval in the last session to enact a higher hotel tax rate. It has since raised its rate to 5 percent from 3 percent.

For York County, Miller said, there has been reluctance to enact another county-specific measure, so his House Bill 1486 proposes to raise the cap on all of the counties covered by the same enabling provision as York.

State Rep. Jerry Stern, a Blair County Republican and majority chairman of the House Tourism and Recreational Development Committee, pointed out that the portion of the state's county code covering tourism has become complex, leading to an interest in consolidation, Miller said.

"That being said, it's not going to be an easy process," he said.

Miller would not venture a projection on whether legislation authorizing an increase in York County's hotel tax will be successful this session.

"That's where we are, and we'll see," he said.

The House committee recently held a hearing covering Miller's legislation and opened it to the larger issue in the commonwealth, Stern said. It would be better to coordinate efforts, he said.

"To go at it county by county doesn't really send a unified message as to what we are trying to do related to tourism and our overall vision," Stern said.

At the same time, the state first needs to do more to market Pennsylvania as a whole to visitors, Stern said. Other nearby states, such as New York, are spending many times what the commonwealth is, he said.

Stern has proposed H.B. 1635 to take 1 percent of the state's sales and use tax from hotels, or about $33 million, for such purposes.

The proposal would split the money using about $20 million for marketing the commonwealth as a tourist destination and about $13 million for a grant program to support museums and historical, arts and culture centers.

Stern also has proposed H.B. 1215 and H.B. 1216.

The first would establish a statewide tourism commission with members from tourism promotion agencies, state officials and the private sector.

The second would establish a tax credit program to help fund tourism efforts.

Testifying at the recent committee hearing was Rob Fulton, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Association of Travel and Tourism. The consensus from the hearing is that there is general concern for the piecemeal approach of raising county hotel taxes, Fulton said.

Another key part of the discussion going forward is general changes to hotel room tax law. One would be more teeth for enforcement and make sure everyone who should be remitting hotel taxes is doing so, he said.

The industry also would like to amend a county's rights to designate a different tourism promotion agency in a dispute and to have better definition of the purposes for which the hotel tax revenue could be used, Fulton said.

The best approach going forward would be to try to put as many counties into one piece of legislation as possible and give them a decent range of how high they could raise their respective taxes so they wouldn't have to keep coming back to the legislature, he said.

There are some, however, that would be difficult to include, namely counties that each have their own individual statues already, Fulton said.

"Trying to get into that would, I think, cause problems," he said.

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