Tag Archives: Michael Snyder

How to get those ski leases reopened

Last Tuesday, State Auditor Doug Hoffer issued a report on Vermont’s leases with ski resorts. The leases, he said, were outdated and were not bringing a fair return for the resorts’ highly profitable use of public lands.

At the time, you may recall, the state Parks and Rec Commissioner Michael Snyder basically threw up his hands and said there was nothing the state could do until the leases expire — decades from now.

Well, I’ve been reminded by someone more aware of state finances than I (which probably includes a substantial percentage of my readership) that the state does, indeed, have a hammer it could hold over the resorts’ heads.

It’s a tax exemption, granted in 2002, on ski lifts and snowmaking equipment. This exemption cost taxpayers $1.42 million in foregone revenue in fiscal year 2012.

It’s been suggested that this is basically a giveaway to a lucrative industry. Sen. Tim Ashe, chair of the the Senate Finance Committee, has called for a cleanup of Vermont’s cluttered, nonsensical “tax expenditure” system, and cited the ski equipment exemption as a clear example of the problem. As he put it, “every time they pay less, we all pay more.”

Well, hey. Why not dangle that juicy tax break in front of resort owners, and say something along the lines of “Gee, it looks like you’re getting a sweetheart deal on your leases AND a questionable tax exemption. Tell you what, we’re feeling generous; you can have one or the other, but not both.”

Makes all kinds of sense, at a time when the Governor and lawmakers are scrambling to find revenue and/or cut the budget. Problem is, the underlying reality hasn’t changed since I last wrote about this. Resort owners are politically connected (how many trips has Gov. Shumlin made with Bill Stenger?), and generous with campaign contributions. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to take either of their windfalls away.

Need proof? How about the sound of silence from the Statehouse in the aftermath of Hoffer’s report? Nobody wants to touch this one. It’s a shame. I expect better from my Democratic majority.

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Well, here’s another good idea we’ll never hear again

Earlier this week, State Auditor Doug Hoffer issued a report suggesting that the state is getting shorted on leases of public lands to ski areas. The long-term leases were negotiated in the Good Old Days, when ski areas were not much more than trails, lifts, and lodges. And they reflect that; lease payments are based on lift ticket sales.

Simpler times.

Simpler times.

Today, ski areas are ski resorts — with myriad amenities and all-season activities. Lift tickets are a small part of the whole. You could argue that that’s because of investments by private-sector operators; you could also say that none of it would exist without the public lands. The AP’s Wilson Ring put it this way:

The [Auditor’s] report says that inflation-adjusted lease payments to the state declined by 14 percent between 2003 and 2013, but property near the ski areas increased in value by about 150 percent, and meals, alcohol and room taxes have increased by between 40 percent and 61 percent.

Parker Riehle of the Vermont Ski Areas Association scrambled to justify his industry’s bargain-basement leases.

“The better that those sales are and the better that the ski rates are on state land the better that the lease payments are to the state,” Riehle said.

Is he really trying to tell us that rock-bottom leases are more lucrative for the state than reasonably-priced ones? Like the supply-side assertion that lowering taxes will increase revenue? How well does that work, Sam Brownback?

Of course, Riehle was reaching deep into the bottom of his rhetorical barrel; he also claims that the leases have led to the preservation of land and wildlife.

Yes, big expensive resports are nirvana for the ecosystem.

Hoffer doesn’t necessarily recommend trying to reopen the leases; he just wanted to provide information and raise the question.

It’s a very good question, with the state’s budget circumstances so tight that Gov. Shumlin has proposed leasing prison space to the feds (which will keep more state inmates in out-of-state for-profit prisons) and placing a three-year moratorium on the Current Use program, among many other things, to generate new revenue. His administration is effectively searching all the sofa cushions for spare change.

Nonetheless, it’s safe to assume that Hoffer’s report will be quietly shelved. Michael Snyder, Vermont’s Parks and Recreation commissioner, says the state’s hands are tied until the leases expire.

That strikes me as an awfully defeatist attitude. The state does hold the ultimate hammer — it’s our land, after all — and could force the ski resorts to reopen the deals if it wanted to.

Of course, ski resort operators (Bill Stenger, come on down!) are very well-connected people with top-shelf representation at the Statehouse and deep pockets for campaign contributions. I can just hear Our Lawmakers issuing heartfelt paeans to One Of Vermont’s Iconic Industries, a Bedrock of Our Vital Tourism Sector, and pooh-poohing any talk of Reneging On Agreements Made In Good Faith.

Too bad, ’cause if Shumlin’s budget is any indicator, we could really use the money. The resort industry has it to spare. And I’d say we deserve a fair return for the use of public property.

But naah, it ain’t happening. Better luck with your next report, Doug.