CHEYENNE – After three years of effort, the Wyoming Legislature has advanced a statewide lodging tax to the governor’s desk.
Backed by the hotel industry and Gov. Mark Gordon, a statewide lodging tax – which passed the Senate Friday by a 16-13 vote – would provide the state’s tourism department with a dedicated source of income to promote Wyoming to visitors.
“It’s huge for the state’s second-largest industry,” Chris Brown, a lobbyist for the Wyoming Lodging & Restaurant Association, said Friday. “With the difficult fiscal discussions that the state has been having, tourism and hospitality is poised to come to the table like we have for the last handful of years and play a more meaningful role in Wyoming’s fiscal picture moving forward. That is a huge step in that direction, and I’m really proud of this moment.”
Largely seen as a compromise between an industry reluctant about new taxes and a state government looking to offload a burden from its already-stressed budget, the 5 percent lodging tax did not pass without its share of debate from critics opposed to taxation or the idea that government should be involved in promoting private industry.
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Two of the legislation’s harshest critics were hoteliers in the Senate themselves – Lander Republican Cale Case and Rock Springs Democrat Liisa Anselmi-Dalton.
Case, who declared a conflict of interest on all but one vote (an amendment that would actually reduce the amount of money that would go to the Department of Tourism), argued that the impacts of tourism for the state right now were “far overblown,” and that any impacts from increased tourism funding would predominantly benefit one place: Teton County. This concern was shared by Senate Majority Floor Leader Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, who argued the state’s current promotional efforts do little to boost the state’s rural communities.
Others, like Anselmi-Dalton, saw the tax as inflexible, both as an uncalled for mandate on hotel owners already operating on thin margins and as a burden on in-state residents and industry.
“I would have preferred a much more local solution,” she said. “A government closest to the people is one that governs best, and I think that’s the solution we would like to see.”
While numerous amendments were brought to the floor to try and accommodate that perspective, almost all failed, with many lawmakers arguing that any special accommodations could gut the bill or create unfair treatment for some communities under the tax.
“Taxes are a tough discussion,” said Brown. “And I appreciate the vigorous debate this topic has had, because it deserves that much debate. It’s a huge decision. But at the end of the day, this is going to be beneficial for hotel properties across the state both large and small. Tourism helped generate $196 million in revenue for the state last year, and this puts us on a more competitive platform with surrounding states to play an increased role in our state’s success.”
Some lawmakers were simply reticent to vote for a new tax, particularly in an election year. But as the state’s other revenues decline and states such as Utah, Colorado and Montana have seen gains in tourism, many lawmakers believed 2020 was the year to finally do something.
“I know this is a tough vote for a lot of folks,” said Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson. “But I assure you this industry will be for you and deserves your support today. I know this is a tough vote for a lot of you. One day, you’re going to regard this as one of your best votes, a vote you’re proud of, one that will unleash the shackles and let us go free. You want to diversify the economy? This is your chance.”
The bill now goes to a committee where the House and Senate will hash out its differences before proceeding to the governor’s desk for his signature.
“As I said in my State of the State address, tourism represents an enormous opportunity to grow our economy,” Gordon said in a statement. “I want to commend those who supported this legislation, which reflects a true agreement between industry and state government. This bill allows Wyoming’s tourism industry to sustain itself and control its own future.”