Editor’s note: Capitol Dispatch appears every Sunday during the legislative session.
A bill that would redistribute about $329,000 in tourism tax dollars to local cities instead of Cowlitz County passed out of the state House Thursday night.
The legislation was introduced last year but stalled in the Rules Committee.
19th Legislative District Reps. Brian Blake, an Aberdeen Democrat, and Jim Walsh, an Aberdeen Republican, sponsored the bill again this year. It passed out of the House on a 57-40 vote.
Blake said it is “reasonable” to let the cities to keep the tourism tax dollars they generate and then choose if they want to contribute to a countywide promotion effort.
However, Walsh said Friday that he ended up voting against the bill when it reached the House Floor because he had hoped to reach a better compromise.
“The county and cities are at loggerheads about this. I had hoped there was going to be some sort of deal worked out between counties and city. The county is still unhappy about the bill,” he said.
Cowlitz County commissioners last year and this year have strongly opposed the bill, saying it would inhibit their ability to promote countywide attractions, such as Mount St. Helens.
Meanwhile, cities such as Kalama and Kelso have pushed for the measure because they generate a lot of revenue from hotels and motels within their borders.
As things stand now, the cities and county get 2% of the state sales tax collected in their jurisdictions to promote tourism. In addition, Cowlitz County collects another 2% lodging tax from hotels and motels throughout the county for tourism projects.
The legislation would not impact taxpayers. It would allow cities to keep that additional 2% lodging tax generated in their borders. Kelso officials last year argued that 37 of the state’s 39 counties operate this way.
Rep. Ed Orcutt, a Kalama Republican, was vocally opposed to the legislation last year and he spoke out against it again this week, he said Friday.
“I said that I’m concerned about the county losing those dollars and us losing the opportunity to capitalize on the 40th anniversary of Mount St. Helens as a way to promote the area,” he said. “I’d like to see those funds remain at the county level so any momentum we get from the anniversary” can continue.
Orcutt represents the 20th District, which includes places like Toutle, Cougar and other unincorporated areas that would benefit from county promotion of rural areas and Mount St. Helens.
A companion bill is making its way through the Senate.
Longview police station
Blake and Walsh said they also are working to secure about $500,000 in capital funding for a satellite police office in the Highlands.
There’s only about $60 million to $80 million available in the entire capital budget this session, Walsh said. That doesn’t leave much money to fight over.
Walsh said the police station is one of his top requests. While negotiations are ongoing, he said he’s “optimistic” about the project’s chances.
Blake, meanwhile, was a little more circumspect.
“I’m working on several capital budget proposals, and I think all of them collectively are long shots, but we’re going to keep pushing it. I think this one especially has merit and let’s see what happens,” he said.
A bill that Walsh sponsored allowing sports betting in tribal casinos also passed out of the House this week on an 83-14 vote. Walsh said he’s open to eventually broadening the scope to include other establishments.
“It’s a limited opening first with a controlled regulatory apparatus and known universe first and see how it goes. If it works out, open it up later,” he said.
Another bill regarding public disclosure of government employee personal information also passed out of the House 91-7.
The legislation exempts the month and year of birth for government employees and volunteers along with photographs and payroll deduction information. However, it permits news media to access the full birthday and photos. It also requires notification for an employee when a records request is made for their information.
“The question is can you balance the public interest in knowing details of public employees with public employee legitimate privacy issues and concerns. It’s really tough to find that balance, but I think this does,” Walsh said.
Blake seemed to agree, saying the bill “solved the problem of privacy issues while still allowing the media access to do the important work they do.”
Looking ahead, Walsh said he anticipates debate next week regarding proposed gun legislation.
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