Opinion: How to fix failure of new hotel/motel tax vote

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[Editor’s Note: This column first appeared in the February edition of BIZ. Magazine.]

On Nov. 4, 2014, voters in Caddo and Bossier Parishes considered and rejected the Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau Proposition (2% Hotel Occupancy Tax).

This tax would have been levied on visitors to our area. However, that didn’t seem to matter to voters  — especially in Bossier Parish, where the tax was soundly defeated. Some folks vote “no” for any proposition that involves the word “tax.” That being said, there were plenty of reasons to vote yes. Those who researched the proposition often became advocates for it.

So why did this proposition fail? Simply put, it was a public relations failure.

DavemugAt some point in the process, this proposition was dubbed “The Independence Bowl Tax.” I am sure the architects of this legislation cringed each time someone made such a reference. But, unfortunately for them, it stuck. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone is fanatic about college football. Only three-fourths of one cent in the two-cent proposition was aimed at the Independence Bowl. Equally funded by the proposition was the Ark-La-Tex Regional Air Service Alliance. It is a long word that essentially identifies a group formed to bring better/more affordable air service to Shreveport.

Left to the uninformed, this would sound like an effort to bring air carriers like Southwest to town. That is only partially true. Like layers of an onion there is far more to the picture than what is initially understood. For instance, were voters aware this proposition could go a long way to protect Global Strike Command at Barksdale A.F.B.? In the simplest of terms, there is a great need for direct (and affordable) flights to Washington, D.C. for personnel at the base. As a Major Command, Global Strike officials must trek to the nation’s capital on a regular basis.

Like it or not, flights are not added to regional airports simply to fill a need. It takes incentives to move airlines to action. It is just the way it is. Passage of this proposition would have helped in that regard. Were voters aware that one-half of a cent on the proposition would have helped bring the Bassmaster Classic back to town? The “Superbowl of Bass Fishing” is ready to return. Again, it takes incentives and other money to bring them here and make all the events happen.

Sadly, voters were most likely not aware of these things before heading to the polls. This is not an effort to “assign blame.” However, here are a few things that could be done should a similar proposition makes its way back to ballots:

  • Advertise if you can — Voters still read newspapers, watch local TV news and listen to radio talk shows. While some entities are bound by law not to engage in political activity, some foundations and political action committees can. Advertising the merits of the proposition, and explaining the method of collection would go a long way to swaying the “anti-tax” crowd.
  • Hold many, many public meetings — Those who cannot advertise can hold meetings and public forums to “get the word out.” While many of these are poorly attended, the public relations value is high. Informing the voters who will come out to the polls is paramount. Get the information out there any way you can.
  • Choose the election date carefully (if you can) — As sad as it is, a low turnout election date benefits those who are attempting to pass a tax. During a lower turnout election, it is generally more informed voters who head to the polls. In addition, it doesn’t take as many supporters to be rallied to get things passed. Often, the best voters are the ones who show up at the polls when there isn’t a “big election” on the ballot.

It is quite possible this tax will come around one more time — perhaps as separate propositions. Hopefully, the organizers learn from previous attempts and do what it takes to ensure passage.

David Specht is President of Specht Newspapers, Inc.