Tom Joyce, The Mount Airy News
Sen. Don East said Thursday that he doesn't think the lack of an occupancy tax in Surry County-wide represents a big loss.
The tax proposal was targeted by county officials as an opportunity to promote tourism but was derailed by East in the state Legislature.
Referring to the approximately $60,000 that the tax was expected to generate each year and pointing out that it is relatively small compared to other governmental expenditures, East said, "I can't think that's going to drastically benefit tourism in Surry County. I just don't think that's going to happen.
"Sixty thousand dollars wouldn't even pay the director's salary," the Pilot Mountain Republican said of a county official whose job title includes handling economic development and tourism. "This is not a tremendous issue."
But the main reason East said he declined to support the introduction of proposed legislation to make the occupancy tax a reality was that it is just another in a long line of measures that take money out of people's pockets. Calling them "incremental" taxes, East said each often doesn't amount to much on its own, but when these taxes are added together, they simply increase the financial burden on citizens.
"I have tried to never support these little incremental taxes," the local senator said.
An organization called the Tax Foundation reported earlier this year that Americans will spend more on taxes during 2008 than they will on food, clothing and housing combined.
The Surry Board of Commissioners earlier had approved charging those who stay in motels or bed and breakfast establishments in the county a 6 percent tax. All four of Surry's municipalities have such a tax, all the proceeds of which are required by law to be used to increase tourism in the locality involved.
However, the county occupancy tax was subject to approval by the N.C. General Assembly, which is now in the midst of a "short session" - and that's where it fell short this week.
East explained Thursday that rules for short sessions of the state Legislature require all General Assembly members who represent a certain area, such as Surry, to agree on the filing of bills affecting that locality. His refusal to support the measure requested by the county commissioners meant that a Wednesday deadline for filing local bills passed without such legislation being introduced.
"So as far as I know, the issue is pretty well dead," East said Thursday afternoon.
Another member of Surry County's legislative delegation, Rep. Jim Harrell III of Elkin, was planning to introduce a bill allowing the tax, but was not able to because the full support of the delegation didn't materialize. Harrell, a big supporter of tourism efforts in the area, has said that he thinks the occupancy tax is needed to advertise the county.
One reason for the popularity of such taxes is because they tend to place the burden on visitors rather than local citizens.
However, East says those folks who have put forth the effort, and the expense, to visit Surry County and spend tourism dollars deserve a break as much as anyone. Due to rising gas prices, "It's costing them about twice as much as it did two years ago to get here," he said.
East stressed that he isn't just against the Surry County occupancy tax, but routinely rejects all such "incremental" taxes that cause people to pay more, whether they involve taxes on cigarettes, beer and wine or others. "I bet I've voted no on a thousand of those tax increases."
The Surry senator says he tries to weigh whether a particular proposal represents a "good" tax increase vs. a bad one, and "I do pretty regularly say no."
Craig Hunter, the chairman of the Surry Board of Commissioners, declined to comment Thursday on the failure of the county's occupancy tax proposal, which might not be totally dead.
A bill to allow the levy could be filed in a future "long" session of the General Assembly, which operates under different rules than a short session. That is how municipalities in Surry County were able to gain approval for occupancy taxes in the past.
The eventual approval of a tax on lodging establishments in the county would allow it to enter into a partnership with all local municipalities. Through that partnership, a portion of tax proceeds are devoted to joint promotional programs.