In the next-to-last day of the 2015 Georgia General Assembly, legislative leaders trotted out a dramatically revised $900 million transportation-funding bill and basically rammed it through the House and Senate, brooking no objections and allowing no amendments.
Among the features of the revised House Bill 170 — features never vetted in a committee hearing, never discussed in a public setting — was a new $5-a-night “fee” on hotel and motel rooms in Georgia. The “fee” — not a new tax, mind you, but a “fee” — is expected to generate some $200 million a year for transportation. Using that revenue, legislative leaders were able to reduce the size of a fuel tax increase also contained in the bill.
Politically speaking, one of other attractions of the “fee” was that a lot of it would be collected from visitors to the state, who do not vote here and who presumably would have no option but to pay it. But the state’s tourism, convention and hotel-motel industries were justifiably upset, in no large part because they had been blindsided. That wasn’t by accident. HB 170 had been passed 11 days earlier in the state Senate, meaning that legislative leaders had ample time to negotiate its final form in public, through the conference-committee process. But they had no intention of doing so.
During a committee process, someone might have pointed out the inequity of attaching the same $5-per-night fee onto a $35 bill for a motel room in south Georgia and onto a $3,500-a-night suite at the Ritz Carlton in Buckhead. For the farm laborer or transient family needing a cheap place to stay in south Georgia, that’s a 14 percent increase in the cost of the room, but only a 0.14 percent increase in the cost of the Ritz suite. If you’re going to go that route to raise money for transportation, a tax as a percentage of the room rate would have been far more equitable.
And what about the impact on the thousands of unfortunate Georgia families who are already living on the economic edge, whose only refuge short of homelessness are the cheap extended-stay motels such as those along Buford Highway or Jimmy Carter Boulevard? A $30-a-night kitchenette for a single mother and two children now becomes $35 a night; over a month’s time, that struggling family will end up paying $150 to help fund transportation. That’s an enormous, even crippling sum to people in that situation.**
Of course, it’s entirely plausible that given a full chance to work its will, the Georgia Legislature might have paid no attention to such concerns. Looking out for the little guy is not typically high on its list of priorities. But the way the bill was handled ensured that they never had a real chance to think it over.
** After 30 days in the same motel, renters in Georgia are no longer charged hotel-motel fees or taxes. However, if they move to a new motel for some reason, for example to take a new job, they will once again have to pay another $150 a month.