James Gill: Tax didn’t figure in Super Bowl bid

Aw, Shucks. Once that hotel tax increase died in the legislature, New Orleans’ chances of landing the 2018 Super Bowl were supposed to go way up.

The theory was that NFL owners would be more likely to embrace New Orleans if it didn’t mean sitting back and watching the public pay through the nose. The glaring flaw in that theory was that’s how they all got to be billionaires in the first place.

Now that New Orleans has been shunned anyway, it is obvious that tourism officials, in their zeal to block the tax increase, laid on the dire consequences a bit thick. Another 1.75 percent on room bills would have had no effect whatsoever on our Super Bowl bid.

The likely reason Minneapolis got the game was that its taxpayers are picking up a huge tab to build a new stadium, and the NFL always looks kindly on its public benefactors.

Legislators killed the hotel tax hike only after Lt. Gov Jay Dardenne and Greater New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Stephen Perry persuaded them it would put New Orleans out of the running for big-time sports events. The proposed hike would give New Orleans a rate almost as high as New York’s, Perry was fond of pointing out.

That must have been the clincher. Nobody ever goes to New York, do they?

Regardless, an extra few bucks on hotel bills wouldn’t have had any effect on the NFL bottom line. There’ll be tumbleweeds on Bourbon Street before they fail to sell out the dome on a Super Bowl Sunday.

Owners don’t care what state legislatures get up to, provided, of course, that they keep subsidizing football franchises to the tune of about $1 billion a year. Minnesota may be the latest to pay tribute, but Louisiana taxpayers have heaped so much money on Saints owner Tom Benson that New Orleans will always have a place in the heart of the NFL too, however much legislators tinker with tax rates.

And hotel taxes will always have a place in Benson’s heart. They were the source of a $186 million subsidy he negotiated in 2001 when Mike Foster was governor. The gubernatorial aide lining up the moolah on that occasion was none other than Perry.

The bill that died in Baton Rouge, heavily lobbied by the famously hard-up Mitch Landrieu administration, would have required the City Council to raise the tax only after its approval in a municipal referendum. But given that locals don’t mind taxes so much when visitors have to pay them, Baton Rouge was the crucial battle ground. The bill squeaked out of a House committee, but tourism officials leaned on legislators forcefully enough to ensure the proposition would never make it onto the ballot.

It won’t much matter what the hotel tax rate is if city services deteriorate enough to scare tourists away, and Perry proclaims a “commitment for wanting to make sure our city is stable.”

To that end, he has kindly offered to help find other ways of raising money, but offered no clue as to what they might be. Meanwhile, another of Landrieu’s proposed tax increases — on cigarettes — isn’t going anywhere either, and the city faces obligations that apparently exceed any realistic revenue options by a wide margin.

Most people probably couldn’t name the last team to have won a Super Bowl here, but everyone remembers the lights went out in the dome. That wasn’t because the city couldn’t afford to keep them on, but, next time, who knows?

If tourism officials were guilty of alarmism in the matter of New Orleans’ Super Bowl prospects, perhaps their claims about the overall impact of a hotel tax hike were exaggerated, too. Perry says it would have reduced visitor spending by $1 billion over the next 15 months and caused widespread layoffs in the tourist industry, which provides jobs for 78,000 in the New Orleans area.

While it is never wise to rely on numbers pulled out of a hat by a less-than-objective source, Perry cannot be gainsaid when he maintains that higher prices depress demand. The hotel tax increase, Perry points out, would have given New Orleans a rate 50 percent higher than Las Vegas and Orlando, two of its principal rivals in the scramble for the tourist dollar.

But Landrieu is in such a jam that residents will hope that Perry can indeed come up with some revenue ideas to get him out of it. Now that we know we won’t be getting a cash infusion from the 2018 Super Bowl, times are more desperate than ever.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.