South Carolina's tourism industry went on a trip Wednesday — its annual pilgrimage to Columbia.
The lobby en masse is not unusual at the Statehouse, but the hospitality folks know better than most that the most direct path to a lawmaker's head is often through the stomach. Thus, it's one of the few days on the legislative calendar that the pork flows into Columbia.
This year, the tourism folks were chewing on the politicians about immigration reform and squashing smoking bans. But what has really stuck in their craw is a new bill that would let local governments use state hotel taxes to pay off bond debts.
The state collects a 2 percent surcharge on room rentals, 95 percent of which must be spent on "tourism-related expenditures," per state law.
And the hospitality folks take this requirement seriously. A committee of 12 tourism chiefs is on constant lookout for local governments gaming the system. After all, there is about $40 million a year at stake, roughly $8 million of which comes from Charleston County lodgings.
The new bill, filed by Sen. Hugh Leatherman (R-Florence), would let cities and counties pledge accommodations tax revenue as security for bonds and use the funds to pay off debt.
Though the bonds would still be tied to "hospitality," tourism folks think it will open the door to hijacking the tourism kitty.
Tom Sponseller, executive director of the Hospitality Association of South Carolina, said one town is already trying to bankroll a new city hall with the funds, only a small part of which would include a visitors center. Youth sports facilities, apparently, are also a big threat to the system.
"Even though it falls under the tourism-related recreation, it's a stretch how many people will come from afar to a new Little League baseball stadium," Sponseller said.
"A lot of people feel like this would just erode a lot of money that's already there."
This isn't the first time Leatherman has tried to stretch A-tax rules. The senator, representing tourist-sparse Darlington and Florence counties, penned a proposal last year that would have allowed counties with little in the way of visitors — those that collect just $100,000 in A-taxes — to spend their tourism taxes on police, firefighting and EMS services.
Sponseller and company put the kibosh on that measure and hope to do the same to Leatherman's most-recent proposal.
"A lot of what we were pushing for has already been done," he said. "So right now, with only a few weeks left, it's more like, 'Let's make sure nothing bad happens.' "
It doesn't get any better than this.
Not only is AirTran finally coming to Charleston, but it looks like the Atlanta-hubbed carrier may snap up a Milwaukee-based rival that would boost its operations by almost 50 percent, especially in the Midwest.
Charlestonians may not be crazy about the Corn Belt, but the Corn Belt is crazy about the coast And a tide of cheap tickets from the Midwest to the Lowcountry would provide a tidy harvest for the local tourism industry.
In October, AirTran made a $345 million bid for Midwest Air Group Inc., a carrier that runs 345 flights a day to 50 cities. Midwest told AirTran to go fly a kite, but the scrappy discounter came back to the table with a $389 million offer.
The sweeter deal still didn't sway the Midwest board, but almost 60 percent of its shareholders took notice and tentatively agreed to the buyout; some of the biggest stockholders urged the company's directors to sit down at the table.
AirTran had threatened to yank its offer last week, but it left its chips on the table and has nominated three people for seats that are coming open on the Midwest board. That maneuver — no doubt a play to push from within for a sale — will unfold at the Midwest annual shareholder's meeting June 14.
AirTran stock closed Friday at $12.03 a share, up 41 cents, or 3.5 percent for the week, a sign that Wall Street thinks $389 million is a good deal for Charleston's newest carrier.