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Sun Gazette: Victory at last? Arlington tourism tax reinstated by legislature Print


Created: ·Friday, February 26, 2016 11:15AM


Five years after the Arlington County government saw its ability to levy a surtax on hotel stays to fund tourism promotion stripped by an irate General Assembly, the county is on the verge of getting it back.

Measures to end the five-year moratorium on the taxing authority have successfully cleared all legislative hurdles in Richmond:

• The House of Delegates on Feb. 24 voted 78-22 in support of legislation that previously had won approval on a 29-10 vote in the state Senate. The bill is patroned by state Sen. Janet Howell (D-32nd).

• The state Senate on Feb. 26 voted 30-10 to support a similar bill that previously had won passage in the House of Delegates on a 74-25 vote. It is patroned by Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th).

The only step left? Garnering the signature of Gov. McAuliffe.

“Arlington has taken the long road to get to this point,” noted Hope, who worked with County Board member John Vihstadt (I) to convince Republican leaders in the House of Delegates to let the measure go through.

Vihstadt’s “bipartisan relationships in Richmond were a key factor in securing passage with the Republican majority,” Hope said.

Vihstadt did what Democratic Arlington County Board members over the past five years had been disinclined to do: travel the 90 miles to the Virginia Capitol to make the case in person.

“Richmond lawmakers understand and appreciate that Arlington is under new management,” Vihstadt said in a statement after passage was secured. “We want to work together to help our tourist economy thrive.”

Both bills now include a “sunset clause” requiring Arlington to come back in two years’ time for reauthorization of the taxing authority. Such a clause had been included in Hope’s original bill, but not in Howell’s, but was inserted at the insistence of the House Republicans.

Both measures would allow Arlington to reinstate the 0.25-percent surtax on hotel stays on top of a 5-percent local tax. The resulting revenue, about $1 million a year, would be used to fund tourism promotion in the county.

The taxing authority had been in place for two decades, but was allowed to die by state lawmakers in 2011, after they were angered by the Arlington County Board’s lawsuit against state and federal officials over high-occupancy-toll (HOT) lanes on Interstates 95 and 395.

The General Assembly voted to give the taxing authority back to Arlington in 2013, but the measure was vetoed by then-Gov. Robert McDonnell, and legislators did not attempt to override it. The issue had been dormant in the 2014 and 2015 legislative sessions.

Because the bills involve taxing authority, they required a two-thirds vote in each house of the legislature before going to the governor.

The measure had the backing of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, whose president – Kate Roche – said the tourism and hospitality industry is responsible for 25,000 jobs in the county.

Winning reinstatement of the taxing authority was “the Chamber’s top legislative priority for this session,” Roche said.

Janet Howell, whose seniority in the state Senate may have helped the bills’ passage in the upper house, thanked the Chamber of Commerce for its advocacy role.

“The funding will help our tourism industry be competitive,” she said.

The governor’s signature is likely, but nothing seems a sure bet in this saga. And even if it is signed, “we will have to come back and do this again” in 2018, County Board Vice Chairman Jay Fisette said.