Despite deficit, Malloy says it’s time for spending on tourism

For most of this year’s gubernatorial contenders, discussion of state government spending is focused on ways Connecticut can tighten its belt–and Democrat Dan Malloy is no exception.

But in one vital area, tourism promotion, Malloy announced Monday that Connecticut needs to start spending more right away.

The former Stamford mayor unveiled a tourism platform that would restore state government’s all-but-abandoned statewide tourism marketing budget with a $15 million investment.

In the context of an overall state budget that tops $19 billion this fiscal year, and a projected deficit for 2011-12 that approaches $3.4 billion, $15 million for tourism promotion is small change. But Malloy said that considering the annual economic activity tourism generates in Connecticut, the investment is crucial.

The last time state government studied the issue, in 2004, the Commission on Culture and Tourism estimated tourism generates over $9 billion in personal income and more than $1.7 billion in state and local tax revenue. The U.S. Travel Association estimated tourism’s impact on Connecticut last year at $9.3 billion in economic activity and $1.4 billion in tax revenue.

“Connecticut’s tourism and hospitality industry is a major driver of economic activity,” said Malloy, who announced the plan alongside his running mate, state Comptroller Nancy Wyman, during campaign stops at Mystic Seaport and Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration. “If we can make better targeted and more effective investment in this sector, it will pay our state back in countless ways.  Connecticut tourism helps grow jobs, increases state revenue, and preserves the art and culture that makes Connecticut such a great place to work, live and raise a family.”

Malloy noted in his plan that the $19.01 billion budget adopted last month by Gov. M. Jodi Rell and the General Assembly for the current fiscal year, includes a token, $1 placeholder amount in the statewide marketing account. State government spent nearly $4.7 million and $4.1 million on statewide marketing in 2007-08 and 2008-09, respectively before effectively ending all marketing funding last fiscal year and continuing the trend this year.

Citing data from the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, Malloy said the rest of the New England states spent $28.4 million on tourism marketing last year.  “What do they know that the state of Connecticut doesn’t?” he wrote in his plan.

“The puzzling decision by the current administration to eliminate Connecticut’s tourism-marketing budget is another example of why this state needs new leaders that know how to make intelligent, cost-effective investments that will help us attract visitors and create jobs,” Wyman added.

Malloy said he would hope to use a portion of state hotel tax receipts in future years to expand that $15 million investment as state government’s fiscal outlook improves.

Though funding for statewide marketing has been eliminated, the current budget does include nearly $16.7 million to support tourism.

The Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism received $646,860. Another $1.9 million was apportioned to regional tourism groups. And more than $14 million was distributed to nearly two dozen tourism destinations, festivals, urban arts councils and grant programs. Among the select destinations that receive direct state funding are: The Bearsley Zoo in Bridgeport, Mystic Aquarium, the Amistad in New Haven, the Ivoryton Playhouse in Essex, the Palace Theater in Waterbury, and the Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe homes in Hartford.

Malloy said if elected he would reassess a system that has been attacked by critics as disjointed, with select destinations that have political support at the Capitol getting preferential treatment. “This won’t change overnight,” he said, but added it’s time to end “this madcap drive to control everything from Hartford.”

The former mayor added he would rather see more tourism funding placed in the hands of regional groups that could best organize coordinated promotions while still retaining some local control.

Malloy’s rival in the Aug. 10 Democratic gubernatorial primary, Greemwich businessman Ned Lamont, said tourism investments that could create new jobs deserve attention. But given the size of the next budget deficit, any plan to add $15 million in new spending should be accompanied by a plan to cut spending elsewhere or to raise the necessary funds. “Every $15 million promise you make you’ve got to pay for,” Lamont said. “I’m not making any promises I can’t keep.”

Wyman also is headed for a primary on Aug. 10, facing off against Lamont’s running mate, Simsbury First Selectwoman Mary Glassman, for the party nomination for lieutenant governor.