1. Opinion

Editorial: Corcoran lawsuit against Tampa is another assault on home rule

The lawsuit Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran filed against the city of Tampa last week is political grandstanding on the taxpayers' dime. Corcoran sued over what he called an "illegal tax" on hotel stays in Tampa that actually was a plan conceived by hoteliers themselves to pay for a marketing campaign. The suit is an attack on the private sector and local self-rule, and it could undermine both tourism in Tampa and the region's effort to keep the Tampa Bay Rays.

Corcoran's lawsuit takes aim at a $1.50 nightly fee that started being assessed this summer on hotel rooms in downtown Tampa and Ybor City. Corcoran accuses the city of operating an illegal scheme and encroaching on the state's authority by approving what he says amounts to a "tax" on hotels, with the money being managed by a secretive and "completely unaccountable private organization."

"The city of Tampa's label of the tax as a special assessment does not change what it really is: a government-mandated charge paid directly by hotel customers; in other words, a tax," the lawsuit states.

That's explosive stuff; now for the facts. The assessment was not the city's brainchild; it came from the hotel industry. Over a period of several years, hotel executives explored how to boost their advertising efforts beyond the work already being done by Hillsborough County's tourism agency. Working through their professional association, the Hillsborough County Hotel and Motel Association, the hoteliers opted for a modest surcharge on nightly rentals. The city was involved only because it needed to bless the arrangement by outlining the geographic boundary where the assessment would be levied. This was a fee the hotels wanted to boost their advertising and reach more customers. They, in effect, raised their own rates for the good of their industry. It was a business decision by these hotels to initiate an increase in their rates, and the arrangement is similar to what other business cooperatives do in pooling their money for a common purpose.

Aside from the hotel industry initiating the fee, the program is more open and accountable than Corcoran suggests. Every year, in a report to the city, the industry must report those who administered the program, all activities and expenditures that were undertaken and list what the program achieved. About 14 hotels participate, including a single holdout from the original group that has asked to join. The group also has the authority to end the assessment by a vote of the hotels involved. That's hardly the makings of a rogue tax that the city is cramming down the throats of consumers. And it's an arrangement that's being used by tourism groups in cities in about nine other states.

Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, is big-footing yet again where he doesn't belong, standing in the way of what an industry decided was best for itself and ensnaring local government in his latest crusade to brand himself as a champion of the taxpayer.

Another danger of carrying this argument to the extreme is that it could complicate the effort to build a new Rays ballpark in Hillsborough County. One of the funding streams officials there are exploring is the creation of an entertainment taxing district where a surcharge on meals and drinks, for example, might go toward the stadium's financing. As with the hotel surcharge, this is also best left as a local decision.

The hotels saw a need and took it upon themselves to address what is best for their business. The speaker should quit looking at everybody else's business and start solving the many problems languishing under his watch at the state level.