A bill that would let cities and counties use revenue from their lodgers’ tax to subsidize commercial airlines moved forward Monday.
The House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee endorsed the proposal 8-0, though one member questioned using taxpayers’ money to compensate a private airline for its “empty seats.”
Roswell and neighboring communities are pushing for the bill because they say they are negotiating with a major U.S. airline. The carrier wants a guarantee on revenue to fly from Roswell’s airport, leading to the idea of subsidizing the airline with the lodgers’ tax.
Under current law, the lodgers’ tax can be used for marketing and to provide structure and transportation to increase the tourist trade. The legislative staff, in its analysis of the bill, said it’s not clear whether subsidizing an airline would be an appropriate use of the lodgers’ tax.
That led state Reps. Candy Spence Ezzell and Bob Wooley, both Republicans from Roswell, to sponsor a specific proposal for airline subsidies.
Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Española, said the bill, though drafted with the idea of helping Roswell, could be used by other cities with small airports. Farmington, for instance, might profit from the idea, she said.
Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, called the bill “a fantastic idea.” New Mexico spends too much time debating taxes instead of tailoring programs to improve the economy, he said.
Not every member of the committee was as enthusiastic about the bill. Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, questioned the propriety of using taxpayers’ money to subsidize a private business. “We’re paying for empty seats on an airplane,” Alcon said.
Rep. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso, defended the bill after Alcon’s criticism. Cook said the money that would go to airlines is generated by tourists staying in hotels.
Alcon had a quick response. “I don’t have anything against the idea. I’m just worried it’s going to end up somewhere, like a courtroom.” Nonetheless, Alcon voted for the bill.
Roswell has generated tourism with a UFO festival, an idea that sprang from the crash of an Air Force balloon in 1947. The Roswell incident led to fanciful reports of a craft carrying aliens from outer space. Before calling for the vote on the subsidy bill, the committee chairman, Rep. Jim Smith, R-Sandia Park, made reference to Roswell’s history. “I didn’t know anybody flying into Roswell needed airplanes,” Smith said.
The bill goes next to the House Ways and Means Committee.