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October 03. 2012 7:06PM

Hassan and Lamontagne agree that state needs better funding for tourism

CONCORD — When the state Legislature increased the rooms and meals tax from 8 percent to 9 percent in 2009, politicians expected to raise an additional $25 million, 3.15 percent of which was supposed to be dedicated to funding tourism promotions. But in 2011, the deal was suspended.

Gubernatorial candidates Ovide Lamontagne and Maggie Hassan both promised to restore the earmark in separate appearances at the Gubernatorial Tourism Summit on Wednesday at the Grappone Conference Center.

The event was sponsored by 16 tourist destinations or organizations and hosted by WMUR Political Director James Pindell. Hassan was on the platform for the first hour, followed by Lamontagne.

They staked out their positions on a range of hot tourism topics, including the state’s branding campaign, the Northern Pass electric project, funding for the state’s land conservation, or LCHIP, program and casino gambling, for an audience of about 200.

Both candidates agreed that the state needs better funding for tourism promotion. “The Legislature broke the promise made in 2009,” Hassan said. “We need to recommit to tourism and travel.”

The economic impact of tourism was a recurring theme, as both candidates referred to a recent report by the Institute for New Hampshire Studies at Plymouth State University that suggests every $1 invested in tourism promotion yields $9 in state revenue through the rooms and meals tax, tolls, gasoline taxes, licenses, vehicle rentals, lottery tickets, liquor and tobacco sales and other sources.

The rooms and meals tax is the state’s third largest source of revenue, behind the business enterprise tax and the business profits tax, and is also applied to motor vehicle rentals.

“I certainly know that your industry is the second largest industry in the state,” said Hassan, “and when you do well, the state does well.”

When it comes to taxes that affect the tourism industry, Lamontagne was unequivocal in his promise to oppose any increase in the rooms and meals tax, gas tax or highway tolls. Hassan has said she was open to a conversation on those taxes, but told the tourism group that any increase in the gas tax or tolls is unlikely in the near future.

“I’m not going to support any raise in the rooms and meals tax above 9.5 percent,” she said. “As we all know, budgets are compromise documents, but I think it would be very ill-advised to raise the rooms and meals tax.”

The two candidates agreed on a number of issues. Both opposed continued raids by the Legislature on the state’s Land and Community Heritage Investment Program (LCHIP) to help balance the budget. A portion of the money collected from real estate transfer taxes goes to the fund, which is supposed to be used to preserve open space.

“I think we should fund LCHIP,” Lamontagne said. “You need to be honest with the people of New Hampshire. If you’ve got a tax or a fee that’s associated with a certain purpose, then you honor that.”

Both restated their support for casino gambling at one highly regulated location. Both offered qualified support for the Northern Pass electric project, a network of high-voltage transmission lines that would bring hydroelectric power from Quebec to the New England grid, via New Hampshire.

“I like the idea of supporting a renewable, non-fossil source of energy, but I do not think the current proposal gives New Hampshire enough benefit,” Hassan said. “I also want to make sure we don’t have unsightly towers in places they shouldn’t be.”

Lamontagne agreed: “I don’t have a policy objection to taking renewable power from Quebec and bringing it down the grid, but I have a problem that New Hampshire is not getting any of it,” he said.

Hassan told the group that an extension of railroad service from the MBTA in Lowell, Mass., to Concord, via Nashua and Manchester, would be a huge boon to tourism, and could help convert Manchester-Boston Regional Airport into an international airport. Lamontagne has supported studying an extension of commuter rail to Nashua.

The candidates took a decidedly different spin on the state’s efforts to promote the New Hampshire brand to tourists in the U.S. and around the world.

Hassan said she was “very excited” about the new “Life Free and ... (fill in the blank)” campaign unveiled in April at the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism. The campaign includes a new logo featuring images of lakes, mountains, rivers and the ocean. New advertising will be phased into the summer campaign and incorporated into the welcome and information centers and the Welcome to New Hampshire highway signs.

Lamontagne was somewhat derisive of the state’s marketing and branding efforts, saying, “I think we need to do much better.”

Alluding to his Franco-American ancestry, Lamontagne told the crowd he asks family and friends in Canada why they don’t visit New Hampshire. “‘We love New Hampshire,’ they say. ‘We go to Old Orchard Beach every summer.’ That’s not New Hampshire, that’s Maine,” he said as the laughter died down.

“If our neighbors to the north don’t know more about us than that, we’ve really failed in branding our state and letting them know the region we are,” he said. “We have to be much more focused on promoting New Hampshire, and I’ll be the ambassador in chief for our state.”

Alice Pearce, president of Ski New Hampshire, sounded a recurring theme among attendees when she said she was impressed by both candidates.

“I am especially pleased to see that both are willing to commit to restoring the 3.15 percent we were promised for promotion,” she said.

dsolomon@unionleader.com



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