Online Travel Industry Wants Reid to Stick Around

Posted September 24, 2010 at 6:09pm

It’s William Shatner vs. the tea party.

In the latest subplot of the 2010 mid-term elections, online travel websites and their executives are banking on the re-election of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, hopeful that the Nevada Democrat will keep his job this fall in his race against populist firebrand Sharron Angle (R).

They want Reid to stick around for their own self-interest: He’s a chief proponent of tax exemptions for cheap online travel retailers.

Shatner, of course, is the spokesman for, whose kitschy, throwback television spots feature the former “Star Trek” actor doing feats of derring-do to cut rates on hotel rooms, airfares and rental cars. Although Shatner’s employer is not politically active — neither employing a lobbyist nor operating a political action committee — the company stands with Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia in potentially benefiting from possible Reid-backed legislation that would ban municipalities from imposing higher taxes on discount bookings.

Brian Hoyt, an Orbitz spokesman, called Reid and Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) “champions of the tourism industry.” In a statement, Hoyt also said “we will support with vigor those candidates for office and elected officials running for re-election who acknowledge the significance the online travel industry plays in creating demand for tourism and business travel.

“We look forward to working with Majority Leader Reid, Senator Ensign and other representatives of Nevada who remain committed to issues impacting our industry and tourism overall,” he added.

Reid’s office and Angle’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Orbitz’s PAC made its only contribution this cycle to Reid’s re-election committee, a $2,400 check written on May 10, according to CQ MoneyLine.

An Expedia spokesman declined to comment for this article. But that firm has also been a reliable Reid backer this cycle. Campaign records show that Expedia has given the Senate’s top Democrat $4,800 this cycle.

In the 2009-10 election cycle, Expedia has given 100 percent of its $32,500 in campaign contributions to Democrats, including $4,800 to Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.) and $9,000 to Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden’s PAC and campaign, according to MoneyLine.

Travelocity and Priceline do not have PACs, and neither company responded to interview requests. But Travelocity executives have given individual financial support to Reid’s campaign this cycle. According to campaign finance records, Travelocity CEO Hugh Jones gave the Senate Majority Leader’s campaign $1,500 in June.

All four online companies are part of the Interactive Travel Services Association, a Washington, D.C., trade group that “promotes consumer choice, access, confidence, protection and information in the rapidly growing world of online travel,” according to its website.

ITSA spokesman Andrew Weinstein called Reid “a tremendous supporter of tourism in a down economy,” and he said the Senator’s support was critical for yet-to-be-introduced legislation that would ban local officials from raising tax rates on the group’s members. In most cases, customers of Expedia, Orbitz and other discount web-based bookers are assessed occupancy taxes on the lower, wholesale price that websites pay major chains such as Hilton, Marriott and Hyatt when they purchase large blocks of rooms.

Weinstein’s group is lobbying for federal legislation that would ban municipalities from collecting the same occupancy fees from major lodging chains and discount online retailers.

“We don’t want to be treated as hotels,” he said.

But while customers may be happy when Shatner’s “Priceline Negotiator” finds a bargain, fewer hospitality tax dollars mean smaller budgets for the nation’s cities, whose mayors are outspoken critics of a possible pre-emptive ban. National League of Cities lobbyist Lars Etzkorn said local governments “need all of the money we can get” these days.

“These tax dollars are really vital. Right now, cities clearly are still facing the brunt of the economic downturn, and it’s going to take two to three years to recover,” he said. “We don’t think it’s an area that we think the federal government should concern itself with.”

Many members of Reid’s own caucus appear to agree. Earlier this summer, nine Democratic Senators criticized the online firms’ lobbying attempts, writing in a June 28 letter that such a bill “would undermine an important revenue source” for cities, and encouraging party leadership not to attach it to other legislation.

In addition to three Republican Senators, the letter was signed by Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Benjamin Cardin (Md.), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Barbara Mikulski (Md.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Mark Warner (Va.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Al Franken (Minn.).

The lawmakers wrote: “Given the complexity of this issue, it requires a full public hearing before any legislative action taken.”

The American Hotel & Lodging Association, a trade association representing major hotel chains, argued that its members are “innocent bystanders” in the fight between some lawmakers and Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline and other discount websites. In a statement, AH&LA spokeswoman Marlene Colucci said potential legislation “would place hotels and resorts at the risk of massive tax increases on money they never received, as state and local governments seek to replace the revenue lost.”