Five weeks into the 2022 legislative session, State Rep. Jason Shoaf’s tourism tax bill looks different than it did when the session started.
It’s progress was stalled in deliberations, where some wording was changed and some portions were removed, but, Shoaf said, the bill is now moving forward again.
On Tuesday morning, the bill passed in the State House’s Tourism, Infrastructure and Energy Subcommittee with a 16 to 2 vote.
The bill, HB 673, aims to make a portion of a fiscally constrained coastal county’s tourism tax dollars available for public safety, modeling itself off of existing legislation that has allowed this in Bay, Okaloosa and Walton Counties in recent years.
The original filed legislation called for as much as 20 percent to be made available for public safety, as well as up to 20 percent of bed tax dollars to be set aside for training programs that would promote or support tourism in coastal counties.
Through committee and subcommittee processes, the available amount was lowered from up to 20 percent to up to 10 percent. It also includes an amendment that says public safety needs must be directly tied to demonstrated tourism-related burdens and concerns, responding to concerns from representatives of the restaurant and lodging industries.
“That is the current law for those three counties,” said Shoaf. “It would be mirrored under my legislation this year, with the amendments, to apply to the fiscally constrained coastal counties, which would be Gulf, Franklin, Wakulla, Jefferson, Taylor, Dixie and Levy Counties.”
HB 637 comes, in part, after Gulf County commissioners voted to reach out to Shoaf and State Sen. Loranne Ausley about the issue during their September 26 meeting. At the meeting, Sheriff Mike Harrison and County Administrator Michael Hammond brought the idea to the table, wishing to make 10 percent of tourism tax dollars available to help the financially constrained public safety offices.
The existing legislation that allowed this to be done in Bay, Okaloosa and Walton Counties set population and minimum raised tourism tax parameters that smaller coastal counties, like Gulf County, are unable to meet.
Now, months later, the sheriff’s office is understaffed, and Harrison hopes that the increased revenue this bill would allocate, if passed, could be used to hire another deputy.
“As far as the TDT tax, we’re very excited about that,” Harrison said at the Feb. 5 Coastal Communities Association meeting. “That might get us a bit more funding to get more positions once this all turns around.”
The sheriff’s office already has one vacancy, which, despite a starting pay raise and a $5,000 signing bonus, they are struggling to fill.
Harrison attributes this to lack of interest in law enforcement careers among young people and a lack of affordable housing in Gulf County.
Still, the sheriff says he is hopeful that as the office begins to receive applications, the additional funding this bill could provide would help give the Sheriff’s Office more flexibility in policing Gulf County’s busy summers.
““I believe negotiations the other day brought it back down to 10 percent that could be allocated from the TDT tax, the bed tax, for public safety. And then, I believe, it will be up to the county how they divide that up,” Harrison said.
“We’re looking for 75 percent for the sheriff’s office and 25 percent to split between fire and EMS.”
Shoaf said he plans to continue advocating for the issue in future legislative sessions, saying he believes that passing HB 637 would be a step in the right direction.
“I don’t plan on dropping this issue in future years,” he said. “And if I can pass this this year, with this 10 percent, and get the ball rolling… then next year, I intend to come back and go after the workforce aspect and increase it to 20% on both sides.”
“But for this year in order to keep it moving. That was what I had and what needed to be done to build a consensus.”