High court could decide online travel tax fight

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After years of debate in courthouses and the Capitol, a high-stakes tax battle between counties and online-travel companies could wind up in the Florida Supreme Court, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

The 1st District Court of Appeal on Tuesday asked the Florida Supreme Court to resolve a dispute about whether companies such as Expedia and Orbitz are paying the proper amounts of tourist-development taxes to counties. 

The move, known as a certifying a question of “great public importance” to the Supreme Court, came after a three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled 2-1 in favor of the online-travel companies in February. Also Tuesday, a request for a hearing before the full 1st District Court of Appeal was denied.

Seventeen counties are parties in the case, which centers on whether online-travel companies have to pay tourist-development taxes on all of the money they collect from customers. The companies serve as sorts of middlemen between travelers and hotels, charging customers for room rentals and fees related to providing the service.

The lawsuit — and others like it in Florida and elsewhere in the country — centers on whether the online-travel companies should pay tourist-development taxes on the full amounts they collect from customers, or only on the portions that go to room rentals. The companies contend the portions that do not pay for room rentals are service charges, which are not subject to the hotel bed tax.

Counties, however, argue that the online-travel firms should have to pay the taxes on the full amounts, which would lead to millions of dollars in additional revenues. The debate has flared repeatedly in the Legislature in recent years, though lawmakers have not resolved it.

The counties that have been involved in the case are Alachua, Charlotte, Escambia, Flagler, Hillsborough, Lee, Leon, Manatee, Nassau, Okaloosa, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, St. Johns, Seminole, Wakulla and Walton. Also, a similar case is pending at the 1st District Court of Appeal that has been spearheaded by Broward County.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.