Gill: ‘Enforceable obligation’ no tax

So much for Bobby Jindal’s vow to slay every tax increase that comes down the pike.

Considering that his uncompromising stance was supposed to woo GOP hardliners and pave the way for a White House bid, you might expect that Jindal would break his word only for the worthiest of causes.

But, no, the tax he has just signed into law will double the budget of a private and secretive corporation that already enjoys a multimillion-dollar public subsidy. The public has been told very little about how the new money will be spent, and that little does not square with the wording of the act.

The purpose is to bring even larger hordes of tourists to galumph through the Vieux Carre in the name of economic development. The Legislature should be congratulated for cramming so much harm into one little instrument.

It will add 1.75 percent to hotel bills in New Orleans, yielding at least $12 million a year for the New Orleans Tourist and Convention Bureau to spend at its discretion on advertising. This will be in addition to the 13 percent hotel-motel tax from which the bureau is allocated around $7 million a year.

Officialdom, displaying more than its usual contempt for the public’s intelligence, maintains this is not a tax, and the act scrupulously avoids the word, preferring euphemism and gobblegook. Thus we have a “surcharge” imposed under an “optional self-generated private-sector self-assessment program.” But then comes a clause that reveals the truth. This is an “enforceable obligation of the guest.”

It will be imposed only when a majority of hoteliers vote in favor, which they will obviously fall over one another to do. They would be crazy not to embrace a scheme that will force their customers to meet the costs of attracting millions more to the city.

Meanwhile, their guests, having no option but to pay up, will figure this meets the definition of a tax to their satisfaction.

The bureau’s chairman, Gregory Rusovich, joined the chorus, insisting that “this is not a tax” in a letter published in the Times-Picayune and the Advocate last month. Rusovich maintained that this ‘voluntary assessment” could “create a $500 million economic impact and 5,000 new jobs” in 18 months, and we must hope that the second part of that proposition contains more truth than the first.

Rusovich also assured us one-seventh of the proceeds would “assist public safety, sanitation and other services in the French Quarter.” That would make a lot of sense, since the tourist industry has an obvious stake in reserving its pièce de résistance, and locals will certainly be in favor. But it would have been easy enough to make provision for Quarter repairs in the act, and you will find nothing there but gung-ho advertising jargon.

At least we will have a better idea of what happens to our money from now on. The bureau has always refused to release any information, claiming to be a private organization because some of its revenues come from member dues. But state judge Ethel Simms Julien just put a stop to that impertinence, ruling that the bureau is “subject to the Public Records Act as to the expenditure of public funds.” A more-obvious judgment could hardly be imagined, except that this new hotel surcharge is manifestly a tax.

What we now discover is that the executives who run the bureau are not inclined to stint when it comes to rewarding their own efforts — President Stephen Perry’s base salary is well over $400,000 — while spending freely on travel and entertainment is more or less mandatory in their business. No wonder everyone’s afraid to call a tax a tax.

Perhaps Jindal will abandoned his presidential ambitions now he has approved one. It seems impossible for him to carry on without his one and only schtick.

But you never know. After all, nothing is certain save death and enforceable obligations.

James Gill can be contacted at jgill@
theadevocate.com.