With the ability to levy an additional tourism tax after a record year, Hillsborough County may have available a key part of a new Rays ballpark funding formula in the wings.
Tourism is a huge part of the Florida economy, and hotel/motel taxes (sometimes called room taxes) are often used to back large public projects, including spring-training, MLB and NFL facilities. Typically there’s up to five cents on the dollar in the hotel/motel tax, and currently Hillsborough County is maxed out at five cents.
But there’s also a provision in Florida law that allows an extra cent to be added in “high impact” tourism areas — those areas where tourists spend more than $600 million in a calendar year. In 2017, for the first time Hillsborough County reached that threshold, giving county officials the ability to add that additional penny under state law. And do those pennies add up: over 30 years, it’s estimated that $75 million could be raised from tourists, providing a first funding source for a new Tampa Bay Rays ballpark in Ybor City. It’s also a politically benign tax hike, paid not by locals but by tourists. From the Tampa Bay Times:
There are two reasons the tax appeals to community leaders for the purposes of helping to finance a ballpark.
First, it’s a tax that mainly is paid by visitors to the area. Unless a residents takes a staycation at a Hillsborough County hotel, nearly all the money collected comes from out-of-towners.
Taxing tourists more is seen as far more politically palatable than raising taxes on residents, like the contentious tax increase that paid for Raymond James Stadium. Hagan and others have said they will not support a tax increase on residents to pay for a ballpark.
Second, local governments are limited in how they can spend taxes collected from hotels. State law dictates three uses for these tax dollars: tourism advertising and marketing; beach renourishment and financing for tourism facilities like convention centers, museums and, yes, stadiums. It cannot go toward things like teacher salaries or road repairs.
The penny tourism tax won’t come close to paying for a new Rays ballpark. But it could be a cornerstone of a new Rays ballpark funding plan.
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