Sen. Bill Cowsert told a small group of Oconee County Republicans last month that he was glad county Tourism Director Peggy Holcomb was not present as he gave his justification for adding $5 to the daily bills at hotels, bed and breakfast establishments, and motels around the state.
Cowsert knew how Holcomb felt about the transportation bill that Cowsert supported and the General Assembly passed late in this year’s session that added the $5 hotel fee and increased the gasoline tax in the state, effective July 1.
Holcomb told Cowsert in an email message she sent him on April 2 that the General Assembly did not look deeply enough “into the repercussions of this new hotel fee” and called this “most unfortunate.”
Holcomb said she was “deeply concerned and troubled about the many negative consequences of the $5 per night per hotel room fee on business, leisure, convention and group travel within and to Georgia.”
Comments At Wrap-Up Session
Cowsert made his comments in a legislative wrap-up session hosted on May 21 by the Oconee County Republican Party at the Watkinsville Community Center.
|On Daniells Bridge Road|
Holcomb had sent him, Rep. Chuck Williams and Gov. Nathan Deal nearly identical letters about the transportation bill passed by the General Assembly on March 31–the second last day of the session.
Holcomb had gotten a draft of the letter the day before from Julie Musselman, executive director of the Georgia Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus, based in Savannah.
I obtained the correspondence through an open records request I filed on April 30.
Signed By Governor
Gov. Deal signed the transportation bill on May 4.
It will convert the current state sales tax on fuels to an excise tax of 26 cents per gallon for gasoline and 29 cents per gallon for diesel fuel.
It also put some restrictions on how local fuel taxes are calculated.
And it imposes the new fee for hotel and motels that is on top of any hotel and motel tax that local jurisdictions already have in place.
Oconee County has a 6 percent hotel and motel tax, but Watkinsville, where two of the three Oconee County businesses that will be affected by the new $5 tax are located, does not have a hotel and motel tax.
Holcomb told the two legislators and the governor that the “full damage of the $5 hotel fee included in this legislation is yet to be determined.”
What is clear, she wrote, is that it will have a negative effect on all business travel done by Georgia-based companies, on traditional economic development and local business recruitment efforts, and on future hotel development and construction prospects.
The fee will result in higher costs for municipalities and counties, according to Holcomb, and hurt efforts to attract new groups and conventions to the state.
Holcomb said the tourism industry, which she said is the fifth largest employer in the state, “understands the importance of transportation and infrastructure improvements,” but “using a hotel fee to fund transportation infrastructure is unprecedented in this country.”
Almost half of the hotel stays in the state are made by Georgians, Holcomb wrote in her letter. Smaller communities have more in-state travel than the larger municipalities, she wrote.
Holcomb did not receive a response from Cowsert or Deal by the end of April.
She received a response from Williams about 45 minutes after she sent her email on April 2.
“Peggy, the bill is now in Gov Deal’s hands,” he wrote to her.
|Near U.S. 441 Bypass|
She wrote him back seven minutes later saying “It was in your hands before it got to his hands. I just can’t understand this. And it was in the 11th hour ‘literally.’ We had no input or knowledge. I’m going to need some help on this, along with a lot of other people.”
Williams Critical Of Email
“Getting input AFTER we vote does not help us make decisions,” Williams wrote back to Holcomb a few minutes later.
“I understand that over 85 percent of this will be paid by non-Ga residents, and since it’s statewide, it won’t create an unlevel playing field.”
Holcomb told Williams about 45 minutes later that “We couldn’t have any input as we knew nothing about this.”
“We learned of it at 8 pm Tur, voted approx. an hour later. Late session gymnastics not fun,” Williams wrote back less than a half hour later. The bill passed on March 31, a Tuesday, and Williams seems to have meant to type “Tue” rather than “Tur.”
Rep. Quick Not Written
Williams also attended the meeting on May 21 with Oconee County Republicans and spoke approvingly of the transportation bill, which both he and Cowsert voted to approve. Cowsert served as majority leader of the Senate this last session.
Rep. Regina Quick, who, with Cowsert and Williams, represents Oconee County in the General Assembly, did not attend that May 21 meeting because of another commitment.
Quick did not vote in support of the transportation bill with its hotel and motel fee and fuel tax increase.
Holcomb did not write to Quick about the bill, according to the correspondence I received from my open records request.
The county’s Visit Oconee web site lists three businesses that will be affected by the $5 nightly hotel fee.
SpringHill Suites on Daniells Bridge Road at the Oconee Connector is the largest of these.
Ashford Manor bed and breakfast on Main Street in the center of Watkinsville is another.
The third is Luxury Inn, 173 ½ South Main Street, near the U.S. 441 Bypass, also in Watkinsville.