Harford County is close to receiving elusive state authority to levy a tax on hotel and motel room rentals, thanks to a backdoor legislative tactic deployed by the leader of the Maryland Senate, with the blessing of a leading candidate for county executive.
Harford is the only county in the state that doesn't levy a lodging or room tax, and the issue of whether to have one has consumed more than two decades of political debate in the county.
The Maryland Senate passed legislation March 10 giving Harford County the ability to levy a room tax, and the manner in which the legislation is crafted makes it likely the House of Delegates will follow suit.
Language inserted into the Budget and Reconciliation Financing Act of 2014 introduced by Senate President Thomas V. "Mike Miller, who represents Calvert and Prince George's counties, authorizes all charter counties, including Harford, to levy hotel rental taxes.
The house version of Budget and Reconciliation Financing Act passed its second reading Wednesday and was expected to continue moving through the legislative process.
Harford Sen. Barry Glassman, who is running for county executive, said the bill is "strictly enabling," only giving the county legal authority to draft and adopt legislation locally to collect a room rental tax. Such legislation would have to be approved by the county council.
"The next administration will be able to sit down with the various partners in the county hotel industries and municipalities and draft a local bill," Glassman, a Republican, said. "It provides the framework to sit down and do a local lodging fee."
According to Glassman, Harford County has tried in the past to secure authority from Annapolis to levy a hotel tax, but he said there was always some dysfunction on how the revenue would be distributed among the county, municipalities and other interest groups.
"This provides a very flexible framework to bring all parties together to figure out what a lodging fee would look like going forward," Glassman said, using "fee" rather than "tax" to describe the levy.
In the past, he noted, Harford County did not have as much tourism as it does today, with visiting teams play at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen and traveling sports groups playing at Cedar Lane Park near I-95. He said as the county has grown, it makes more sense to have a hotel tax now.
"Part of my plan for the county is to re-work our efforts and kind of modernize it," Glassman said. "Adopting this would play into a much large reorganization and marketing for the county. It plays into what I see as the county modernizing into the future."
In 1995, the General Assembly passed legislation authorizing Harford to collect up to 3 percent lodging tax. The legislation was backed by then-delegate Dr. Rose Mary Hatem Bonsack, who served in Annapolis from 1991-1999.
According to Bonsack, the revenue raised from the hotel tax was to be used to specifically assist the City of Aberdeen, which has the county's largest concentration of hotels and had just opened Ripken Stadium, a minor league ballpark whose construction was partially funded by the state.
The county government never enacted the tax locally, however, as elected officials went back and forth studying and arguing over how the money from the tax would be spent.
In 1999, Sen. Nancy Jacobs backed legislation to repeal the hotel tax authorization for Harford County, after leaders from the county's tourism industry and hotels said it would have a negative impact on tourism and keep visitors from staying in hotels in Harford.
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"It was a great tragedy that anyone would repeal [the hotel tax] because we would have all kinds of money by now if the hotel tax wold have stayed in effect," Bonsack, an Aberdeen resident, said Wednesday. "We're aren't taxing local people. We're taxing people traveling into the area."
Hotel taxes grossed more than $102.1 million in revenue in Maryland during FY 2014. Cecil and Frederick Counties had the lowest hotel tax rates during FY 2014 at 3 percent. Baltimore City had the highest at 9.5 percent.
Bonsack said she has continued to work to reinstate the hotel tax authority for Harford County since leaving office in 1999. She said in she met with Miller in December to discuss a way to get the taxing authority back, since other efforts had been unsuccessful.
Several bills had been introduced in recent years to authorize a hotel rental tax in Harford including House Bill 1395 in 2013, House Bill 584 in 2011 and House Bill 664 in 2010. Some of these bill included specific language about the tax percentage and how the tax revenues would be spent. All failed because of friction among Harford's legislators. Such local courtesy bills typically won't be passed by the full assembly unless all the locals support them.
Harford Del. Mary-Dulany James, member of the House Appropriations Committee and a supporter of the current hotel tax effort, said she didn't anticipate any amendments to the budget legislation before it goes to a final House vote. Such a vote was expected this week.
James said previously the local hotel industry hoped the county would get an "competitive advantage" over Baltimore City and Baltimore County by not having a hotel tax. She said instead it hurt the county because it was substituting local tax dollars for tourism revenues.
"We now have our own tourist attractions," James said, mentioning Ripken Stadium, Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton and Havre de Grace's museums and events. "We weren't getting any competitive advantage from Baltimore City or County by not having a hotel tax."