Lawmakers may allow rural Utah counties to use more money from hotel taxes to buy buildings and land, repair roads and fund police under a bill sent to the House floor on Thursday.
The bill would give rural legislators about $2.5 million more that they could choose to spend however they wanted on a list of topics approved by the Legislature. The money represents a significant amount for some of the state’s least populated counties that host millions of tourists every year.
County commissioners from rural Utah said they needed the power to spend more money from hotel stays to keep up with road maintenance because they have small tax bases and an influx of tourists visiting the state’s national parks and other federal lands.
“We’re talking about taking care of tourists safely and adequately when they come to our counties,” said Garfield County Commission Chairman Leland Pollock.
Pollock’s county, home to much of Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Capitol Reef National Park, could use an estimated $342,000 more for roads if HB367 passes this session.
HB367, sponsored by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, would allow the state’s smallest 18 counties to spend up to half of the money raised from transient room taxes on roads and other items. Counties are currently capped at spending a third of the hotel tax revenue on roads.
Tourism officials warned the bill will lead to fewer dollars being spent on attracting people to the rural counties. Transient room taxes help fund the marketing and promotion that attracts people back to the counties.
Jordan Garn, executive director of the Utah Hotel and Lodging Association, said hotels were reluctant when the tax was created.
“The only thing that kept the tax tolerable was the idea that that tax would be used to promote their destinations,” Garn said. “The fear has always been that that treasure trove would be exploited for different purposes. Now we’re seeing that come to fruition.”