Editor’s Note: This is part of a series on the effort to bring a hotel tax to Jackson County. Previous report can be found here.
Taxes – no matter what most politicians say, they love them. Tax money enables the politician to wield influence, enrich themselves, and reward their politically allied business friends. Spending tax dollars on the right projects and people ensures the politician he will be re-elected over and over. The only problem is that voters HATE taxes.
This is a conundrum for the politician. He needs money to spend, but his voters will crucify him for raising taxes. Instead he goes and fund-raises from the federal government. He and his colleagues spend money on lobbyists to ensure smooth deal flow. He and his colleagues hire lawyers and consultants to issue bonds. But only if he could raise taxes and get away with it or, better yet, tap into an entirely new revenue stream.
The perfect tax for a politician would be one his constituents don’t pay and would apply only to those living outside his district. No one would ever complain and hundreds of thousands of dollars each year would be raised to benefit a very select few. And if those select few happened to donate to his campaign?! Ah.. we have found the perfect tax.
This is the very case with the recent hotel tax vote that occurred in Jackson County expected to raise $600-700,000 annually. You might not have even been aware that the issue was up for a public vote. Being that we are in the middle of an election year, having elections scheduled August 4 and November 3, you might not expect a special election on June 23 with a single issue on the ballot: a hotel tax.
June 29 of this year marked the end of a long campaign to organize tourism marketing efforts in Jackson County. That day the county signed an operating agreement with the Mississippi Gulf Coast Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). It was a project that had many fits and starts, required passage of three bills through the legislature, and a referendum. It was supported by several Jackson County politicos and funded by yet unnamed business interests.
During a May 7, 2012 Beth Carriere gave a presentation to the Jackson County Board of Supervisors (JCBOS). During the meeting Carriere extended an invitation to join the Harrison County Tourism Commission, which she led. She gave details on marketing campaigns and the vision of marketing the area, not as separate counties, but as one coast. Supervisor John McKay led the discussion, asking for details, stating that Jackson County should be involved and doing its “fair share.” He asked how much money would be required. Carriere demurred, claiming they were only interested in Jackson County’s participation at this point.
The board’s response was tepid and they tabled discussion, promising to make a decision within the month. McKay asked board attorney Paula Stennett-Yancey to review the memorandum of understanding Carriere presented.
It was an auspicious time for Jackson County tourism efforts, as only days earlier Jerry St. Pe passed the torch to Ocean Springs businessman Wally Carter with his position on the Mississippi Gaming Commission. At the same time, a group of investors in Pascagoula were putting together the final pieces of local and federal government financing to develop a Hilton-branded hotel, which they billed as the largest private investment in Jackson County after Chevron and Ingalls.
Tourism was back on the table only a week later at the JCBOS’ next meeting. Stennett-Yancey had reviewed the MOU and prepared a resolution for the supervisors to vote on. McKay motioned, to approve, Troy Ross gave a second, but supervisors Cumbest, Mangum, and Harris all voted against the agreement. It was a scene that would be replayed on the issue the next year.
A no vote by the supervisors would not be enough to stop the money train.
The reality is that the CVB’s 2012 requests were the first green shoots of seeds that had been planted four years prior by the Gulf Coast Business Council.
The GCBC operates and a sort of “meeting of the five families” of coast business. It seeks out the dons of industry and economic development. Membership is only for c-suiters and certain key development partners, and it is by invitation only. They are not to be confused with the Chamber After 5 cocktail crew (though overlap may be possible). This is serious business interests coming together to push serious government initiatives in order to meet their objectives.
Just as the mafia dons might meet as “the commission” to reach consensus and end internecine family rivalries, so would the GCBC. In 2008 the council began forming a work group that would evaluate tourism and marketing efforts along the Gulf Coast and make recommendations for improvements. The marketing efforts for different attractions and locales had been fractured and the group thought that there would be efficiency in marketing the area as one coast.
BP $ Buys Big Political Players’ Partnership
The effort was dawdling along until Haley Barbour came to town in April of 2011 with $16 million of BP’s money. He gave the money to the council to divvy up as grants over the next three years, having to spend it all by July 2014. He conditioned this on the group bringing all three counties together and solidifying public-private tourism efforts. The council formed a separate non-profit called the Gulf Coast Tourism Partnership. The GCBC would nominate seven members, and the three coastal counties would nominate two each.
Just a few days later, Jackson County appointed Margaret Miller (Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce) and Carla Todd (Jackson County Chamber of Commerce) to serve on the board of the partnership. The partnership would also form a grant committee and installed Rich Westfall, former marketing director for the Isle of Capri, as chairman.
The Partnership began doling out grant money and lobbying the coast’s county supervisors. For a period, the Partnership had the opposite effect, competing with the HCTC on parallel efforts. Eventually the well funded Partnership won out.
To be continued…