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Indiana Senate amends SSCVA oversight bill

An amended bill that would give financial oversight of Lake County’s tourism bureau to the county council only if the county’s innkeeper tax is increased passed the Indiana Senate Tuesday on second reading.

State Sen. Dan Dernulc, R-Highland, who authored the bill with Sen. Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell, introduced the amendment that would trigger automatic oversight of the bureau’s budget if the council were to raise the innkeeper’s tax. Dernulc and Niemeyer are both former Lake County council members. Senate Bill 37 as originally written would have made oversight of the tourism bureau budget effective July 1.

The county’s 5% innkeeper’s tax has not been raised since 1990, according to records from the Indiana Department of Revenue. Lake County collected approximately $775,381 in innkeeper’s tax in 2023.

Last year the legislature enacted a law that enables the potential development of a convention center in Lake County.

Under the legislation, the Lake County Council has the ability to raise the state innkeeper’s tax by as much as an additional 5% without having to go before the state legislature for approval.

The Lake County Commissioners will be responsible for selecting the entity or entities that partner to build and operate a convention center. The center will be overseen by a six-member board and commissioners will have three appointments.

The legislation tasks the Regional Development Authority with financial oversight of the revenues collected for the center and requires it to update its prior study that looked at potential locations. Although Hammond’s Oxbow Landing was identified as the top-ranked location in the study, the Hard Rock Casino had not yet been built and the former Majestic Star Casino location is no longer available.

Andy Qunell, president of the SSCVA board of directors, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the change to the legislation.

Council President Christine Cid, D-East Chicago, said she supports council oversight of the tourism bureau’s budget. The county council enacts the innkeeper’s tax and there should be oversight of those taxpayer dollars by the elected body that represents the people in Lake County. The added oversight helps ensure that the entity’s spending is in compliance with current legislation. She was disappointed by the changes to the proposed legislation.

“I do not support the amendment,” Cid said.

Councilman Randy Niemeyer, R-Cedar Lake, said legislation is a process of negotiation and compromised and he can’t be upset with legislators for considering multiple points of view. The innkeeper’s tax is just a portion of a much larger $5 million budget and Niemeyer said he has questioned the lack of oversight as it now stands.

He said the innkeeper’s tax is the only tax of which he is aware that does not have oversight at some point by some elected body. He would have like the council to obtain oversight of the bureau’s budget.

“It’s disappointing, but I understand,” Niemeyer said.

Councilman Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, who has said he would not support raising the innkeeper’s tax without oversight of the body’s that will spend it, said it sounds like the bill “falls really short of where it needs to be.”

“And I’m not convinced there’s even a need for a convention center,” Bilski said, adding that at this point in time he’s leaning against supporting any new tax.

cnapoleon@chicagotribune.com