California's department of tourism is offering a hotel-booking service in conjunction with its toll-free telephone number and Internet site, becoming the first state to offer lodging reservations. The department is not exactly opening an agency, but it's close.

Agents by and large contend with reason that the res service is an unnecessary intrusion into their bailiwick, albeit under a contract with a private firm.

Except in scale, the operation is akin to a local tourist information booth that locates rooms at crunch time. But the scale is great, it's not crunch time, and the operation receives a commission.

The res center is operated by BASS, a sports- and theater-ticketing agency that gives to the state 1.5 percentage points of its commission from hotels (10% for 800-number and 8% for Internet bookings).

When anyone dials California's tourism office on its 800 number and asks for brochures and general information, a res agent pitches a hotel booking. If the answer is yes, the potential traveler is assigned to a hotel on a rotating basis, based on consumer preference of the hotel's neighborhood and price range.

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John Poimiroo, the state's tourism director, who expects 3,000 hotels to sign up, claims that the bookings are "transactional in nature" and involve individual stays, many at less-expensive properties, that agents are not interested in. Maybe.

It seems innocuous enough. California's tourism department wants to hook the prospect while he or she is on the phone, and Bass wants the commission to defray some costs.

The bookings are transactional, of course. That's the nature of them, but agents, just as BASS apparently does, might find them a profitable ingredient in their overall mix of business.

Any government-sponsored action that steers potential consumers out of sight should be troublesome to any business, whose taxes support the enterprise. The state needlessly is cutting off potential business.

We cannot fault agents for wondering where else such a "service" will spring up and what else it will provide.

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