Dardenne still pushing tourism money from state budget

Posted on: October 5 2014
By Mark Ballard - The Advocate

It has become almost a symbol of fall in Louisiana, like raw oysters and the sweet-smelling smoke from a burning cane field.

Admittedly not as romantic but just as sure a sign are harried state employees putting the finishing touches on their agency’s proposal for how to spend taxpayers’ dollars during the upcoming fiscal year. It’s the first step in a long process that ends with the governor’s signature sometime around July 1.

Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne marks the season, as he has since taking office in 2010, with his traditional labor to change an accounting policy that strips money from tourism advertising and uses it for operating tourism-related events and attractions.

As lieutenant governor, Dardenne oversees the state’s Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. He’s also running for governor in 2015.

The tourism budget is funded by .003 of every penny of state sales tax collections. It raises about $23 million every year. Under the law that was passed in 1990, the money that accumulates in the Louisiana Tourism Promotion District fund can be used only to “promote tourism.”

Dardenne says the definition means the money is dedicated to running the Office of Tourism and the advertising that entices tourists. Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Louisiana Legislature counter that the money should help fund operations for events and attractions that bring in the tourists, like the Bayou Country Superfest and the occasional NFL Super Bowl.

A couple years ago, Paul Rainwater, who at the time was commissioner of administration and Jindal’s chief financial guy, said the money leverages Louisiana’s attractions and events, and therefore, the spending is consistent with tourism’s goals.

Dardenne says the drop in money for advertising caused by the policy requires him to ratchet back buys for print ads and television commercials. Last year’s version featured zydeco music over a collage of dance halls, Louisiana musicians of various genres, and ubiquitous Cajun and Creole dishes. Television spots soon will start running in the spring for the summer vacation season — probably on a reduced schedule — in markets like Memphis, Tennessee; Denver; Dallas; Houston; San Antonio; Austin, Texas; Chicago; and Atlanta.

The Louisiana Tourism Promotion District marketing fund picked up $24.2 million from the sales tax dedication. Roughly half — about $12.3 million — was scooped up to pay for operational expenses for events and attractions in the current fiscal year.

That’s this year; next fiscal year might be worse because BP payments run out. Dardenne had been using the BP money to cover the advertising hole created from diverting the sales tax money.

Dardenne argues: If these events and attractions are so important to driving business to Louisiana, then the state should pay for them directly — out of the state’s general fund, from where the money that pays regular state operations comes.

Last week, the Louisiana Tourism Promotion District, members of which are industry and government professionals charged with overseeing the tourism’s dedicated sales tax revenues, voted to do just that: fund the favored tourism venues — such as $418,500 for the Bayou de Famille attraction in Jefferson Parish and $948,112 for the Essence Festival in New Orleans — from the general fund and not from the tourism promotion fund.

When asked if the Jindal administration backs paying out of the general fund or continuing to use the tourism promotion money, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols wrote Friday in an email: “Special events like the Essence Festival and Bayou Country Superfest attract thousands of tourists to our state. These are promotional opportunities that are good for Louisiana and have a positive impact on tourism and tax revenue.”

If operational expenses are not moved to the general fund, Dardenne says he will have to shave advertising overseas. Tourists from Canada and Europe — mostly France, Germany and Great Britain — stay longer and spend more. That international market is growing for Louisiana and needs nurturing, he said.

All that sounds good, but the realities are that the state, once again, expects to take in $1 billion or so less next fiscal year than the $25 billion that government services cost this fiscal year, so something has to give.

Dardenne argues that tourism is more investment than constituency. In 2013, the state drew 27.3 million visitors who spent $10.8 billion that generated $807 million in state tax revenues and employed about 210,000 Louisiana residents.

“It’s not a question of changing the law, it’s a matter of persuading the governor and the Legislature,” Dardenne said.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.