SARAH COOKE Associated Press Writer
HELENA Tourism industry officials lined up Tuesday behind a proposal to funnel $14 million in bed and rental car taxes into promoting Montana despite opposition from the Schweitzer administration. Tourism is one of the state’s largest and fastest growing industries, supporters told the Senate Local Government Committee, generating $2.7 billion in revenue and nearly 46,000 jobs in 2005 alone. But Montana has fallen from 15th to 34th nationally in tourism promotion since 1993, and is now losing its industry foothold to states that are spending more to bring in visitors, the bill sponsored by Sen. Lynda Moss, D-Billings, states. “Americans are fascinated by Montana. They want to see it. ... But underfunding is leaving a great opportunity on the table,” said Jeff Welch, coowner of the Bozeman-based advertising firm that promotes winter tourism in Montana. The measure proposes using money from the 4 percent rental car tax and a 3 percent increase to the bed tax passed in 2003 to expand state tourism marketing and the promotion of Montana as a filming location. State parks improvements, historic preservation efforts and the Tribal Tourism Alliance also would be funded under the bill. “We’d be out of our minds if we didn’t put money into an investment of this nature,” Sen. Gary Perry, R-Manhattan, said. Opponents, who included the state Commerce Department director, said the funding isn’t a priority and asked committee members to consider more pressing needs such as overcrowded prisons and school funding. “Even with our current revenue situation, we still live in a world of limits,” said David Ewer, the budget director for Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Last spring, Schweitzer vowed to veto any efforts to divert bed tax revenue away from the promotion of state tourism, but stopped short of supporting a plan to increase those dollars. State Tourism Advisory Council members said Schweitzer asked them to get together with other tourism groups and draw up a plan showing how they could improve the state’s economy if given more promotional money. On Tuesday, supporters cited the industry’s ability to create jobs and bring in money as evidence of its potential effect on the economy. Research, Welch said, has also shown that for every dollar spent on tourism advertising, 67 dollars are returned in visitor spending. “We can create a bump in the state economy, and we can almost do it overnight. ... There are plenty of reasons for people to come to Montana. All we have to do is invite them in a compelling way, but that costs money,” said Linda Anderson-Haines, executive director of the Glacier Country Regional Tourism Commission. Committee members took no immediate action on the bill. The bill is Senate Bill 284.