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Tourism help proposed

HARRISBURG — State tourism funding is one of those items typically settled by last-minute state budget negotiations.

Now, there is a new tourism revenue source outside of the all-purpose General Fund to add to the funding equation.

The debate over tourism spending will likely focus on the financial hardships facing an industry hard-hit by business closings and reduced travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. Tom Wolf is proposing $4 million from the General Fund for marketing for tourism in his fiscal year 2021-22 budget. He also wants to tap $5 million from the Tourism Promotion Fund to support these efforts during the next fiscal year.

“The Pennsylvania Tourism Office’s marketing activities provide exposure to out-of-state markets for the many small Pennsylvania tourism businesses that lack the resources to advertise beyond their local area,” said Casey Smith, spokesman for the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

The tourism fund currently has a $2.4 million balance with payments of $3.5 million having been made, according to state Treasury documents. These numbers are in line with estimated fund revenue for this fiscal year.

The tourism promotion fund was created under Act 109 of 2018. This law expanded the 6% state hotel occupancy tax to cover online booking agents.

The law requires online booking agents to collect hotel occupancy taxes on rooms and homes reserved through their company platforms. Sponsors view it as a way to level the playing field between online travel companies and brick-and-mortar hotels in terms of state taxes.

There appears to be bipartisan support for using Act 109 revenue to support tourism marketing, but a budget debate could surface over whether to appropriate additional General Fund dollars beyond what Wolf proposes to support tourism marketing.

Lawmakers provided a total of $17.8 million in General Fund support for tourism marketing in the FY2019-20 budget. This came in two installments — $7.2 million in the Part 1 budget last May and $10.6 million in the Part 2 budget last November.

The governor’s budget document shows a $13 million cut for tourism marketing next year that reflects the removal of the legislative initiatives, said Smith.

The DCED budget hearing is scheduled Feb. 18 before the House Appropriations Committee.

Meanwhile, the $912 million state pandemic relief law enacted last Friday provides a chunk of money to the broader hospitality industry, which also relies on tourism. It establishes a $145 million county-run grant program for hotels, restaurants, bars and taverns. The maximum grant is $50,000.

Senate Bill 109 allocates money provided to Pennsylvania through the second federal COVID-19 relief package enacted last December.

Some top aid recipients are Philadelphia $17.9 million, Allegheny County $13.7 million, Bucks County $7.1 million, Lancaster County (Dutch Country) $6.1 million and Monroe County (Poconos) $1.9 million, according to the House Democratic Appropriations Committee.

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