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Tourism funding

Jan 14, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

There's good reason to spare it from the state budget cleaver

Is now the time to cut tourism promotional funding from the state budget? It's one of the proposals on the table in the new session of the Wyoming Legislature.

Fremont County, which is a primary crossroads and "stop-over" region of Wyoming for tourism, and which boasts some destination places and events of its own for visitors, will watch this debate closely, and not without anxiety.

No agency, group or program likes to see its funding slashed. Every state-funded program has its merits, and it is both desirable and beneficial to fund a program fully once it has been established. Likewise, when conditions dictate less spending, in theory it is preferable if all entities share the load when funding is trimmed.

But not all state funding recipients are the same, and lawmakers are certain to consider those differences when deciding if a funded entity will have to give up some funding, and by how much.

If there is a recipient of state money that can make a case against a deep funding cut, tourism promotion may well be the one.

The reason is that tourism promotion is a money-market for Wyoming. Its very purpose is to draw visitors here. They spend money on food, lodging, fuel, user fees, entertainment and staple merchandise. They add temporarily to the tax base of the state through lodging and sales taxes.

Wyoming's tourism program has another, specific characteristic that allows local businesses to lower their own promotion costs through a cooperative effort with the state on advertising. It's akin to a matching fund which turns $500,000 in advertising money into $1 million if the small businesses hold up their end of the deal.

That program, apparently, is on the list for a big cutback. If it happens, the effect would be larger than the $500,000, because businesses which had participated would be less likely to do so if the state match weren't available, or in a lesser amount.

In his State of the State address Wednesday, Gov. Matt Mead urged lawmakers to pass his recommended 10 cent sales tax on every gallon of gasoline pumped in the state. In building his argument for the new tax, the governor noted that out-of-state drivers would generate a lot of the revenue.

Why, then, would the state simultaneously cut funds for tourism promotion? Do we want those out-of-state drivers visiting Wyoming or don't we? Strong tourism promotion helped bring more automobile vacationers to the state.

A similar case was made in Fremont County for the optional 1 percent sales tax, which in November was approved by voters. Backers always were eager to point out that tourists would generate extra money as they passed through the county, stayed a night or two, shopped for a thing or two, and left an extra dollar or two here which would be taxed the additional 1 percent.

Same story. A cutback in tourism promotion seems sure to discourage tourist visits to the state. The effect on local economies promises to be a lot more than the projected annual state savings.

Spend money to make money, the saying goes. Sometimes that notion is open to discussion, but less so in tourism promotion than almost any other part of the state budget.

Governor and legislators, please don't gut funding for tourism promotion. If the state's revenue outlook is as bad as you say it is, then Wyoming is going to need more tourism, not less.