In 2011, the Washington state Legislature made the difficult decision to eliminate tourism funding. You might remember that state revenues were still in decline due to the sagging economy, and my colleagues and I were forced to decide what the state would and would not fund. Although we didn't all agree on what was considered a priority, we did agree there wasn't enough money to go around.
That was an unprecedented move to close this office and I have been looking for alternatives to bring visitors to our state ever since. The good news is that I have found a solution and it has to do with showcasing a local company (Christensen Shipyard) and our region to visitors from all over the world.
To set the scene, our state has a unique tax structure on recreational boats -- so unique that no other state or even Canada has anything quite like it. In our state, tourists from out of state are granted a 6-month stay in our waters before owing a 10 percent tax on the assessed value of the boat. Incidentally, that's the same way that vacationing RV owners are treated. However, if the boat is in a charter or it is owned with a business partner and the owners are from out of state, they are allowed only 60 days before this same 10 percent tax is due.
Why the difference? No real reason except that the writers of the 180-day visiting permits failed to include these types of vessels (which are owned in an LLC or entity) when this became law several years ago.
The good news is that Senate Bill 5241 (the "Marine Tourism Bill") in Olympia, which I strongly support, goes back and corrects this mistake. If, and when, the Marine Tourism Bill passes, visiting boats regardless of whether they are owned individually or in a partnership would get 180 days each year in the Evergreen State. That's 120 more days of spending time — and money — in our ports, marinas, and bait and tackle shops.
Boats built in the Christensen Shipyard would now be able to spend 180 days in our area before they leave. One Christensen boat visiting our area for this extended amount of time can completely transform Vancouver and the neighboring areas. We should be rolling out the welcome mat to our floating tourists and encouraging them to stay and enjoy everything Washington state has to offer.
As a legislator, I continue to hear how the economy is rebounding. Unfortunately, many of my neighbors are still trying to find work. Encouraging out-of-state visitors to stay in Washington and spend their money here is a small step that, according to a study commissioned by the Northwest Marine Trade Association, would bring $29 million more each year into our state.
For those who think we may be losing out on tax dollars with this legislative fix, I can assure you that vessel owners who are faced with a 10 percent tax are not staying to pay. Instead, they are pulling up anchor, and moving on to any other state or Canada. This legislation is about creating parity and making our state competitive for marine tourism dollars.
Our neighbors to the north and south know that tourists are a good thing. Not only do their tourism budgets back this up, but there are no real limits on boats visiting them.
This is a bipartisan issue our Legislature can solve on behalf of the 28,000 marine-related careers in our state. Just because our state closed its state tourism office doesn't mean that we shouldn't be doing everything we can to entice visitors to Washington.
Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, represents the 18th District in the Washington Legislature.