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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

House committee muscles through measure to revive online travel tax bill

5

April

Florida House leaders revived a bill to shield online travel companies from being forced to pay additional tourism taxes on the hotel rooms they sell over the Internet by proposing an amendment that will require them to disclose the portion of the bill that includes tax, after the consumer stays in the hotel.

The House Finance and Tax Committee voted 12-11 to kill the measure last week, then used a rules maneuver to keep it alive so they could attempt to reverse the vote this week. They succeeded -- despite a move by Democrats on the committee to use a rules ploy of thier own to stop the bill.

The proposal aims to clarify a now-ambiguous state law that has spawned a series of lawsuits by counties around the state and nation against online travel companies such as Expedia, Orbitz and Hotels.com. 

The companies negotiate with hotel owners to offer their rooms through their online companies. They charge more than the wholesale rate, market the rooms, and sell them at a discount to online customers. But rather than remit taxes based on the rate charged customers, they pay sales tax and local tourism taxes based on the wholesale price and keep the difference — and they don't have to disclose what their fees and taxes are.

Under the amendment approved by an 18-6 vote on Tuesday, the travel companies would be required to disclose the portion of the bill that includes their tax. But critics of the measure said the language didn't do that. "This is just outrageous,'' said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek. "The bill could be great. The fact is, the language stinks."

The bill, by Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, prohibits counties from requiring online travel companies to pay any additional tourism taxes on the wholesale cost of the hotel rooms — essentially exempting them from paying a tax on the retail cost.

Waldman chastised House leaders, including sponsor of the bill Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, and committee chairman Rep. Stephen Precourt, R-Orlando, for ramming through the bill and limiting debate. He said he was shown the amendment five minutes before the committee met. "It's just incredible how you just want to shut off debate,'' Waldman said. "We need to do things better in the House of Representatives. You need to listen to people...You're not doing it today. I'm just very disappointed in the process."

Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando,  predicted that the bill will give an automatic advantage to out-of-state travel companies so in-state hotel companies will create their own wholesale markets.

Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Palatka, said that is a good thing. "This bill will open up a new industry," he said. "The effect, hopefully, will be to reduce taxes for people coming into our state." 

[Last modified: Tuesday, April 5, 2011 6:47pm]

    

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