Passed by the Legislature in 2011, the Georgia Tourism Development Act offered a sweet deal for building new museums, water parks, convention hotels and other tourism magnets. Approved attractions would get to keep a portion of the sales taxes they collect for 10 years.
But the state never started taking applications. State agencies responsible for overseeing the program finally declared last fall that technical flaws in the law made it impossible to write the rules and regulations needed to make the tax break a reality. They said the Legislature would need to make changes to the incentive.
Rep. Ron Stephens, author of the 2011 tax break, has submitted a new version that was approved by a House committee last week and now awaits a vote by the full House.
Under the existing law, local governments would receive less sales tax revenue for things such as schools because some of the money would be kept by the attractions. State agencies warned that created a problem when dealing with penny sales taxes approved by voters, because the state has no legal authority to rebate that money. The revised bill instead ensures that local governments get their full share of sales taxes. Instead, cities and counties will have to offer other financial incentives.
"If we can get this thing in place, make the rules and regulations fit and get one or two projects under way, this could be the biggest economic development tool for tourism ever in Georgia," said Stephens, R-Savannah. "It is a massive, massive tool."
He said the revisions were recommended by the state Department of Revenue and Department of Community Affairs — two rulemaking agencies that balked at the original tax break. A spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal said the governor's office approved the proposed changes.
Some details of the tourism tax rebate that state agencies had previously singled out as too subjective remain in the new version. To qualify for the tax break, tourist attractions would still need to show they would draw 25 percent of their customers from outside of Georgia. And projects that would compete with existing attractions are to be denied the tax rebates.
Brian Williamson, the deputy commissioner who oversees economic development programs for the Department of Community Affairs, said the agency ultimately decided it could write rules that deal fairly with both those requirements.
The original law's requirement that the governor make the final decision on whether projects get the tax break also remains untouched in the new version. No other tax incentive in Georgia requires that.
Deal's spokesman, Brian Robinson, said the governor "backs the agencies' efforts to craft a more finely tuned law." But he stopped short of saying Deal endorses the bill, noting lawmakers could make more changes before sending it to the governor for his signature.
"We'll obviously have to wait to see what the final product is," Robinson said.
State lawmakers and local officials say there are already projects waiting to apply for the tax rebate as soon as it's available.
In Bartow County north of Atlanta, economic development officials are hoping the tax break will help fund development of a 1,200-acre sports and entertainment complex on Lake Alatoona. The LakePoint Sporting Community and Town Center project, which broke ground last November, will aim to lure sports tournaments for children's teams with dozens of fields for baseball, softball and soccer, and a giant indoor space for basketball, gymnastics and other sports. Hotels, restaurants and shopping will all be located on the site.
"It is a priority piece of legislation, in my opinion," said Melinda Lemmon, executive director of the Cartersville-Bartow County Department of Economic Development. "It's still very much an issue that we would like to see resolved for the benefit of the project."
The tourism tax break has also already been at the center of two controversies on the Georgia coast. In 2011, tea party activists in Savannah protested when developers said they planned to seek the tax refund for a proposed convention hotel near the city's downtown historic district, which is already packed with hotels and inns.
A policy adviser to the governor said in an email to Stephens, the law's author, that Deal would likely deny the tax break for that project because it would be unfair to competing hotels. Deal's office cited the law's no-competition language again last fall, when Robinson said the governor would also deny the tax break to a new convention hotel on Jekyll Island.
Developers of the Jekyll Island hotel had counted on being approved for the rebate to secure a $25 million bank loan. The Jekyll Island Authority, which manages the state-owned island, found an alternate source of financing to get the stalled hotel project moving again — but not before the construction delay caused a handful of convention groups to back out of plans to meet there in 2014.