Year-End Convergence of Legislative Activity Leaves A Lot of Unanswered Questions

by Stephen B. Richer, DC Correspondent

It’s December and, as is usually the case, Congress has left significant matters for last-moment resolution in a mad rush to complete mandatory legislation before the new year.

Here are just some of the unanswered questions:

  1. Will significant increases, especially during peak season, be established for some of the most popular national parks?
  2. Will some units of the National Park Service see a reduction in size and new authorized uses?
  3. Will there be any meaningful appropriations to improve and maintain infrastructure within the public lands?
  4. Will funding for the Corporation for Travel Promotion, doing business as Brand USA, be eliminated?

All of these matters are on the table right now and are within either the recently passed House and Senate versions of the tax bill or proposed to be part of the continuing resolutions to fund the federal government.

Let’s take a quick look at each item, so inbound operators can be as prepared as possible to deal with them.

First, there is the fee increase at national parks, in order to generate an additional $70 million, which in fact would represent only 1 percent of the funds needed to address the existing maintainence and repair infrastructure backlog.

This seems to make little sense if losing attendance is an outcome, which might actually reduce income and become close to revenue neutral.  The fact that individual parks can also set other fees, and the methods by which they are collected, further complicates the planning cycle for inbound operators.  The range of fee increases, which approach 300 percent in some cases, is also troubling.

Luckily, public comment is still open until December 22, so it is possible to provide explicit projections of the havoc these changes will make to the key business of hosting international visitors.

Secondly, there are proposals to reduce the size of at least a couple of national park units–Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, both in Utah.  Is this a test case to reduce other units?  If there is limited resistance, it might prove to be the case.

Additionally, the tax bill includes provisions for oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), setting a precedent for alternative uses on public lands.  Again, is this a test case?

Thirdly, there has been no sighting of the trillion dollar infrastructure proposal which was to include the almost $7 billion backlog in the national parks. Ergo one of the reasons for the fee increases, in lieu of this major campaign promise made by then-candidate Donald Trump.

Without the infrastructure initiative, national parks will continue to suffer from crumbling roads, aging bridges, and other physical elements in need of repair.  The bigger proposal is a much better way to address a massive challenge than the band-aid approach of major entrance fee increases.

Inbound operators should examine these choices and continue advocating for funding to more fully address the backlog.

Finally, the tax bill passed by the Senate last week in its 2 am vote, ​threatens ​funding for the Corporation for Travel Promotion, a $100 million zeroing out, according to a report published over the weekend by The New York Times.  If this is correct, it follows the original Trump Administration budget which recommended the same thing, but was reversed in other legislative action this spring.

The loss of funding would be as a result of other legislation, referred to as “Pay/Go,” which ensures that any budget must match revenue and expenditures. Under the terms of this law, the reduction in revenue contemplated by the Senate version of the tax bill must be offset by a cut in spending. The New York Times identified the offsets for $1.5 trillion:

​​https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/11/29/upshot/paygo-medicare-cuts-tax-bill.html

This particular step needs to be further ​monitored​, so it can hopefully be addressed at any conference committee resolving differences between the House and Senate versions of the tax bill.  It is possible, however, that the House will just approve the Senate version, in which case all the good help promoting inbound travel to the United States could be in jeopardy.

This issue will require a further legislative alert in the coming days.

So, if you thought the holiday season was simply a time to celebrate, this report will encourage inbound operators to stay on their toes and watch decisions being made which will affect business in 2018 and beyond.