It doesn’t feel like tourism season around here. It’s dark, wet and cold outside, the out-of-towners have mostly gone home (or where it’s warmer), leaving the charms and attractions of a Northwest December to the locals.
But it’s already tourist season in Olympia. Legislators haven’t even made it town for a session that starts Jan. 9, but already the demands for money are piling up.
Some of them are huge-ticket items, like the governor’s proposed spending on K-12 education, freezing college tuition, expanding the mental health system and pay increases for state employees.
Then there are seemingly tiny items — at least in comparison to the overall bucket of money being fought over — like a state tourism marketing office.
In scraping for every dollar when the Great Recession hit, the tourism office was an easy line item to run a pencil through, not that at $1.8 million a year that allocation was going to close the state’s budget gap. Even then, the spending on tourism promotion didn’t go away entirely; the state contributed some stopgap funding to sustain the barest semblance of a marketing effort, with private sources covering the rest.
The theory was that tourism marketing would become an entirely private-sector matter, with the industry participants paying the equivalent of a tax into a fund that would be used for promoting Washington. But that sort of marketing assessment required legislative authorization. Bills to accomplish that went nowhere, whether because the industry itself had disagreements or because the Legislature had bigger headaches to contend with.
Now the industry, in the form of the Washington Tourism Alliance and local organizations, is back to the idea of a state tourism office. A bill will be presented in the 2017 session.
Where will the money come from, and how much? Those are among the details, but a spokesman for the tourism alliance says it’ll be “partially from general fund dollars and partially from matching funds from the private sector.”
The industry faces an uphill slog in making any more headway than it did in previous legislative sessions. Legislators may not be inclined to spend time on this issue when there are so many other issues that are bigger and more pressing; then again, maybe they’ll want something to discuss while the governor and budget writers wrangle over the money. Speaking of which, the appropriation for tourism marketing could be so small as to escape the attention of legislators looking for places to cut, or the competition for money may be so fierce that they’ll ask why they’re taking on a new obligation.
That brings up some even larger issues that the tourism-office-funding idea will collide with. For example — should the state even be in tourism marketing at any level? And why should tourism get favored treatment over others? The biotech industry is still smarting from a decision to yank funding that had been coming from tobacco-suit settlement money, earmarked for supporting research and development in that sector. No doubt it would like that money back as well.
Perhaps the biggest issue of all, though, is the matter of taxpayer fatigue.
To pay for all that he wants the Legislature to approve, the governor wants a capital-gains tax, an increase in the business and occupation tax on personnel and professional services (lawyers, accountants, architects, consultants and real estate agents). He wants a carbon tax. And he wants five tax exemptions removed, including on bottled water.
These proposals come with Puget Sound residents facing a triple tax increase from Sound Transit. There are calls for still more taxes. Some county officials want the annual lid on overall property tax revenue increases lifted. The governor’s own budget-highlights presentation appears to make the argument that Washingtonians still aren’t forking over enough. “Our state and local governments have become increasingly hamstrung by an inability to meet the rising demands placed on services by a growing population. … If Washington’s tax system were at the U.S. average, we would be generating about $6.8 billion more in state and local taxes per biennium.”
Some of the proposals have been rejected before, by voters or legislators. Political divides in the Legislature (akin to that which kept Pierce County Council from raising the sales tax) make it unlikely the governor will get anything near what he wants on the revenue-raising side.
If that’s the case, then the fights on the spending side, on everything from the paramount (K-12 education) to the insignificant (tourism), will be even more brawl-like than anticipated, with every interest clawing for every dollar.
That in turn guarantees there will be at least one growth industry in Washington state in 2017 — lobbying.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at email@example.com.