Governments everywhere promote tourism as though the attraction of tourists was a fundamental role of government. Wyoming’s state government is no exception.
Without a doubt, tourism is an important sector for the Wyoming economy. According to the Wyoming Department of Tourism (WOT), visitors to the state spent $3.1 billion dollars and paid $128 million in state and local taxes, all of which supported 30,500 jobs in 2012.
WOT itself, meanwhile, spends millions of taxpayers’ dollars to promote the state for Wyoming’s tourism industry. Nice, but should taxpayers be forced to fund the promotion of an industry? Or is this a form of corporate welfare funneled through an ever more expensive bureaucracy?
WOT supposedly brings non-resident visitors to Wyoming by promoting the state as a vacation destination – and it spends an ever increasing amount to do so. Originally part of the Business Council, WOT’s budget continued to rise when it became a separate agency in 2008. Its budget, while still part of the Business Council in the 2005-06 biennium, totaled 17.5 million. In the 2007-08 biennium, its budget rose by 20 percent, to $21 million. The budget jumped an additional 25.5 percent, to $26.35 million in the 2009-10 biennium when it started handing out taxpayers’ dollars to film companies. Although moderating somewhat in the 2011-12 biennium to $26.25 million, its budget rose to $27.77 million in the 2013-14 biennium aligning – theoretically – with Governor Mead’s budget cut.
Yes, you read that correctly. WOT’s budget rose by 6 percent even with the widely advertised 6.5 percent budget cut.
For 2015-16, WOT has a Standard Budget, an amount that would allow the department to continue to furnish the same level of services during the biennium, of $24.6 million. But it wants an additional $2.8 million for more advertising, and that’s not all. Seems Governor Mead wants the department to do more international development so he added an additional $1.9 million to the department’s budget. WOT’s total request is now $29 million, a 5 percent increase from the $27.77 billion 2013-14 budget.
Meanwhile, the trend of WOT compensation is up, up, up. The burden of salaries and employee benefits increased from $2.11 million in the 2005-06 biennium to $2.75 million in the 2007-08 biennium, a 30.3 percent increase in two years alone.
Although no staff is dedicated to film subsidy handouts (the film office’s budget is $900,000, which is the amount of your money it gives away to film businesses), the salary and benefit burden at WOT increased 27.6 percent more, to $3.51 million in the 2009-10 biennium.
By now, it should come as no surprise that during the 2013-14 biennium, when state budgets were cut by 6.5 percent, the WOT salary burden rose by a mere 18 percent, to $4.14 million. For 2015-16, if approved, this burden goes up by 4 percent to $4.3 million.
With the threats created by ever-rising agency budgets made more dire by the specter of falling tax revenues, legislators have some serious decisions to make. Among them is whether to continue funding advertising for private industries such as the tourism industry.
Wyoming taxpayers cough up almost $30 million per year to fund a department that doesn’t build roads, provide police protection, or any other service normally considered to be a fundamental function of government. So when money runs short to build roads, for example, Wyomingites get stuck with higher fuel taxes. Incidentally, the Wyoming Travel Industry Coalition was part of the alliance that lobbied successfully for the fuel tax hike during the past legislative session.
Here’s an idea. Instead of raising taxes for escalating spending demands, free up money to build roads this year and every year in the future by eliminating the department of tourism. Better yet, leave the money in the pockets of the people who earned it so they can afford their higher Obamacare insurance premiums.
Tourism is a great industry that brings lots of money to the state. However, government has no place picking winners and losers in the tax dollar hand out game. It is time for corporate welfare to come to an end. Industries should pay for their own advertising.