The economy of the Historic Triangle — Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown — depends heavily upon heritage tourism. Visitor spending reached $1.08 billionand employed 11,000 workers in 2012, according to one report. But last year tourism and hospitality officials were complaining that growth had stagnated.
So, what do you do to boost the region’s No. 1 industry?
Raise taxes, of course. This year the General Assembly passed a bill backed by Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City County, to impose a 1 percentage point surcharge on the sales tax to raise revenue to be split equally between a new effort to rekindle Historical Triangle tourism and the three Triangle localities of Williamsburg, James City County and York County, reports the Daily Press. Williamsburg would use the funds to roll back the admissions tax and hotel and meals taxes it approved last year.
Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, had opposed the tax all along on the grounds that it impacted poor people the most. After the bill sat on the desk of Governor Ralph Northam for three weeks, he prevailed upon Norment to amend the tax. The revised version would exempt the sales tax on food and add a $2-a-night hotel surcharge to recoup the lost revenue.
“I think this could be transformational,” Norment said.
Bacon’s bottom line: I don’t normally agree with Democratic Party politicians, but Mason is absolutely right about this. It’s one thing to tax hotels and restaurants, as Virginia Beach does, to raise funds to pour into marketing, promotion and infrastructure building. Although local residents do pay more for eating out, the tax is largely paid by the industry itself. But levying a sales tax on the general populace to benefit the industry is quite another thing. Such a tax would indeed impact the poor, who spend a disproportionate share of their incomes on food — not eating at restaurants but food purchased at grocery stores.
The workforce of Williamsburg, York and James City is about 70,000. In other words, five out of six people do not work in the hospitality industry. Undoubtedly some businesses provide goods and services to the sector, thus benefiting indirectly from its presence, but major employers like the College of William & Mary and the Anheuser-Busch brewery do not. The tax would represent a massive subsidy for the tourism sector at the expense of everyone else.
Don’t get me wrong — I personally love heritage tourism. I love visiting Colonial Williamsburg. But is that really the future that Triangle localities want to build for themselves? William & Mary, one of the highest regarded public universities in the country is located there. The Kingsmill Resort, which caters to affluent retirees, is located there. NASA Langley and Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator are located a few miles down Interstate 64. For $25 million a year, the community can’t come up with any better economic development initiative than promoting tourism?
As the dominant industry, the tourism sector is converting its political clout into public subsidies in order to perpetuate, even increase, its dominance. While a 1% sales tax surcharge might not seem like a lot, it will have a small dampening effect on economic activity not related to tourism. For example, the surcharge could encourage affluent retirees to select somewhere else to settle down and spend their money, thus impacting Kingsmill Resort-like development in the future and driving away citizens who pay lots in taxes but demand little in the way of government services.
I’m all in favor of not damaging your existing industry by refraining from enacting burdensome regulations and taxes. But if you want to nudge your community into the innovation-driven Knowledge Economy, you don’t do it by taxing the new economy to subsidize the old economy.