Howard lawmakers struggle with hotel tax increase

Howard County's state legislators are struggling to decide if the county's hotel room tax should rise to 7 percent from 5 percent, even though hotel owners are supporting the idea as a way to raise money for tourism and business promotion.

If approved by the county's eight delegates and three state senators — and later by the full General Assembly — the higher rate would match Anne Arundel County's levy and still be lower than hotel taxes in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, though higher than in Carroll and Harford counties. Some elected officials worry about raising the rates in what they see as an anti-tax political climate.

County Executive Ken Ulman made a campaign statement last year that he was not interested in raising general taxes if re-elected, but he said this request comes from the county's semi-independent Tourism Council and the Economic Development Authority, which would get two-thirds of the estimated new revenue.

The idea, officials of those agencies have said, is to use the money to hire professional sales teams to boost Howard's small-scale efforts to attract more corporations and the hotel stays that would come with them. Hotel owners in the county have said they support the idea, which would double the county's $424,000 annual contribution to tourism and give economic development an extra $400,000. Proceeds from the hotel tax now go into the general treasury.

The rub is that Ulman wants the county government to have one-third of the new revenue, which makes Republicans and conservative Democrats in the delegation uneasy. To win delegation approval, perhaps as soon as Wednesday, the measure must be separately approved by both the senators and the delegates. That means two of three state senators and five of eight delegates must approve the plan. That is not a given.

Republican state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman plans to offer an amendment to cut the county treasury out of the deal, letting the two business agencies split the new revenue. Democrats James N. Robey and Edward J. Kasemeyer seem likely to go along with Ulman.

But Republican Del. Warren E. Miller is opposed to any version.

"They're more competitive now with lower tax rates," he said. The county can spare the extra cash without raising taxes, he added.

Gail H. Bates, the only other Republican delegate, said she's wavering, partly because she served on the Tourism Council and knows the needs. Still, she said, "I have a hard time doubling anybody's budget in a recession."

The final decision may rest with Catonsville/Arbutus Democrats James E. Malone and Steven DeBoy, who also represent parts of Elkridge and Ellicott City. Both said they're waiting to see how various amendments play out.

"I'm up in the air," DeBoy said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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