Union Democrat staff

Increasing the hotel-motel tax, a move afoot in both Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, makes perfect sense in today's tough economic times.

First off, we residents don't pay it. Instead it is assessed on visitors staying at our inns, resorts, lodges and bed-and-breakfasts.

Tourism is a multi-million dollar industry in both counties, and the hundreds of thousands of visitors who spend vacations and weekends here each year do impact county services. It is only fair that they pay their fair share.

Calaveras' tourists now pay a 6 percent hotel-motel tax, and Tuolumne's visitors, 8. These rates are far lower than those charged by most other California jurisdictions. (Both Mother Lode counties, despite earlier hotel-tax defeats at the polls, are now considering raising rates to 10 percent).

Tuolumne County is considering putting its proposed 2-percentage-point hike on next June's ballot. If approved by more than 50 percent of voters, the tax would raise an additional $320,000 in general fund cash each year.

And, yes, confirmed County Administrator Craig Pedro, the revenue is sorely needed.

"We're facing budget challenges," he said at a recent supervisors' meeting, adding that cuts to this year's budget totaled $8.5 million. "This is one of the few measures you can implement that's not going to have a direct effect on residents."

Hotel and motel owners are, in fact, affected. But the Tuolumne County Lodging Association, perhaps recognizing that it's been more than a quarter-century since the tax was last increased, is in favor.

Also, 25 percent of all tax revenues go toward promotion of Tuolumne County tourism.

But despite the lack of an apparent downside, a proposal to raise the tax from 8 to 9 percent was rejected by 55 percent of Tuolumne County's voters in 2004.

Poor timing, voter confusion and a long debate over whether the tax would apply to RV parks and campgrounds may have combined to undermine Measure J. Its 2010 counterpart, however, should eliminate or minimize these problems:

Timing: The proposed June 2010 election could extricate the local measure from November's typically long list of state propositions, which some voters reject en masse. Also, the less-crowded primary election ballot would allow more focus on this important issue.

Confusion: The hotel-motel or bed tax is legally and formally known as a "transient occupancy tax." This may have led some voters to believe proceeds helped transients, or the homelesss, find shelter. Pedro has instead suggested it be called a "tourist tax."

RV parks: It's clear this time. The tax would not apply to RV parks, houseboats and campgrounds.

Then there's overconfidence.

Supporters went into the 2004 campaign convinced there would be little opposition and that a win was all but preordained. When anti-tax activists mounted a mid-campaign offensive, Measure J's backers were caught off guard and, obviously, never quite recovered.

It's a lesson backers of the 2010 measure should heed. If something's worth having, it's worth fighting for. Getting information out to voters early and often should be a priority in the Tuolumne County campaign.

Indeed, as they did in 2004, some will vote against the measure simply because it's a tax.

But consider this: If you stay at a motel in San Francisco or Los Angeles, you'll pay a tax of 14 percent. Turnabout for big-city folks who come here seems only fair.

Also, a quarter of the tax revenue will help further spread the word on the charms of Railtown, Columbia, the Stanislaus National Forest, our historic Gold Rush towns, community theater and the spectacular gateway to Yosemite National Park. Which will lure more visitors here, who will pay more hotel-motel and sales taxes, bringing us more revenue at a time when it is scarce.

Still, the best thing about raising the hotel-motel tax is simple: We residents don't have to pay it.