Fittingly, one of the most important pieces of Harford County legislation to be approved by the Maryland General Assembly came into being because of the efforts of people representing other parts of the state rather than because of efforts on the part of local delegates and senators working together.
The authority to levy a motel-hotel room tax was again bestowed upon Harford County thanks to the efforts of the Assembly's leaders to have the measure appended to the state's budget. Harford had been the only Maryland county lacking the authority to charge a room tax to visitors staying in hotels and motels in the county. Anyone who has traveled just about anywhere in the U.S. can attest that just about every place in the nation levies some sort of lodging tax. No one chooses vacation, business destinations or late night travel stops based on whether a tax is charged at the hotel where they'll be staying.
This logic has been lost on at least one, if not more, of our local legislators for decades, depriving Harford County of a source of revenue that county residents pay when they travel, but that no one has paid when visiting Harford. (It has taken only the opposition of a single legislator because the legislation that would have been required to allow the county to levy a room tax historically has fallen under the local courtesy tradition. Local courtesy means a revenue-neutral state law tailored to a county will be approved by the full assembly as long as there is no dissent on the part of that county's delegates and senators, giving a single delegate or senator de facto veto power.)
This is an important piece of legislation because any time a government is entrusted with new taxing authority, it is important. As the Supreme Court determined early in the history of the Republic, the power to tax is the power to destroy.
As a practical matter, however, the power to tax is also the power to get things done, as every function of government, from road repairs to fielding an army, costs money.
Which brings us to the nuts and bolts of the room tax and how it applies to Harford County.
The theory behind levying a room tax generally relates to a community having to provide certain government services to visitors making use of motel and hotel rooms. For example, if no one were staying overnight in Ocean City, there would be little need for maintaining a multi-lane Ocean Highway, or running tractors along the beach to pick up trash at night, or hiring extra police for summertime patrols.
In Harford County, the costs to local taxpayers are less evident, but no less real. Visitors staying in Harford County use local roadways, generate garbage that needs to be disposed of locally and, from time to time, need to use local emergency services. These things cost money, and for years the resident taxpayers of Harford County have footed the bill, even as they have been obliged to foot the bill for similar services when they travel to other destinations.
Logically, therefore, when Harford County introduces legislation to collect a room tax (the state new law doesn't set the tax), there should be an accompanying reduction in the county's income tax rate (which most people will recognize as the county multiplier on Maryland 502 and 503 tax forms).
There's an aside to this discussion that, given past performance locally, needs to be addressed. For a brief period in the late 1990s, local authority had been granted to impose a room tax. Foolishly, no local law was so much as introduced seeking to collect the tax. The state authority ended up being repealed. Now that Harford has the authority to levy the tax again, it should do so in short order – and reduce the income tax – before the authority is again rescinded at the state level.
In recent years when different groups have lobbied for a room tax in Harford, it has been with the caveat that the take should be used to promote tourism or enhance tourist attractions. It would be fine to add this to the mix, but it must be remembered that a substantial amount of the overnight business in the county consists of business travelers doing work associated with Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Local tourist attractions may be worthy of the boost a room tax can provide, but they don't deserve it quite as much as the average Harford County taxpayer who has been paying the freight for so many years.