Dark skies bill moves forward in legislature

International Dark Sky communities are one step closer to using Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) dollars for infrastructure meant to reduce light pollution.

House Bill (HB) 4158, authored by State Rep. Erin Zwiener (D-Driftwood), would give Dark Sky communities more flexibility to reinvest in tourism efforts. The bill was unanimously voted out of committee and could soon be placed on the calendar for a vote in the Texas House.

If passed, the bill would directly affect Wimberley and Dripping Springs in Hays County, as well as Horseshoe Bend, located near Marble Falls; all three municipalities have been named as Dark Sky communities within the last few years.

“Dark sky tourism is a real phenomenon in the Hill Country, so protecting that night sky will protect that tourism,” Zwiener said. “HOT funds are used to reinvest in tourism, and that’s how we are making a case for this to pass.”

The bill is specifically tailored to allow these municipalities to use HOT funds for lighting infrastructure that allows residents to view the cosmos above. In city’s such as Dripping Springs, this includes special lights with hoods that hinder light pollution to the stars.

Dripping Springs City Administrator Michelle Fischer said the use of HOT funds is deliberately “narrow” in scope and must prove the dollars are utilized for tourism.

HOT is the rate charged by hotel and motel owners to guests who rent a room. The state charges a 6% HOT rate for rooms costing $15 or more per night. Local jurisdictions can also levy a HOT rate.

Dripping Springs, Kyle and Buda each charge a 7% HOT rate, while Wimberley does not currently collect the additional tax.

“It’s not a bill Dripping Springs requested to be filed, but we certainly could benefit from it,” Fischer said. “We’d have to figure out ways this could have an impact on tourism and attracting people, so it’s very narrow.”

Because of its international dark sky designation, western Hays County has become a hub for astro-tourism, bringing visitors from afar to document, study and photograph the night sky.

Zwiener said she believes this niche tourism market needs to be protected, which was one of her main motives for filing the bill. Next, the freshman lawmaker said she will try to have someone in the Senate sponsor the bill.

“You can’t spend those (HOT) funds on just anything, but this bill could support night sky events,” Fischer said. “We support it, and if it passes, will look at potential ways to utilize it.”

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