Governor Bill Lee over the holiday weekend announced that the state will now purchase airline tickets for tourists planning to visit Tennessee’s largest cities, an initiative funded by taxpayer dollars and attracting the opposition from one of the main leaders of the Legislative Assembly.
Joined in a video by country music star Brad Paisley, Lee on Sunday took to social media to promote the initiative, titled “Tennessee on Me.”
“The state buys all these plane tickets and gives them to anyone who books two nights in a hotel room to come to Tennessee, so it’s ‘Tennessee on me’,” Lee told Paisley in the video, while the two were working on a jingle for the program.
“Tennessee on Gov. Lee,” Paisley replied, receiving the assertion from the governor, who is running for re-election in 2022. So far, no serious candidate has announced a challenge to the governor, who remains popular.
The initiative is funded by state funds, a $ 2.5 million allocation proposed by the governor in the 2021-2022 budget and listed solely as a “marketing project” for the Tennessee Department of Tourism Development.
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Lawmakers were apparently taken aback by the July 4 announcement that public funds were being used to pay for plane tickets for tourists. Neither Lt. Gov. Randy McNally nor Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton were aware of the details of the program prior to its launch, they said.
In a statement on Tuesday, McNally, R-Oak Ridge, noted that the state’s tourism industry had “rebounded in record time” after shutting down during the pandemic.
He would have preferred a “more traditional approach” to tourism marketing, McNally said, “rather than direct transfers of Tennessee taxpayer dollars to mostly out-of-state recipients.”
“It is particularly troubling that the promotion is limited to our major cities,” McNally continued. “At least two of these cities have exacerbated the economic crisis by instituting overly aggressive foreclosure policies.
“It does not make sense to limit promotion to these cities when our rural areas have been hit as hard, if not more, by the economic crisis than these cities.”
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Sexton, R-Crossville, said he would also like to see the program’s reach expand beyond Tennessee’s largest cities, but said he would wait to see the effectiveness of the program, which did so far only been funded for one year.
“It was approved in our budget,” Sexton said. “We’ll see how it works. “
McNally said he plans to ask Lee’s office and the Tourism Development Department to provide more details during the budget process on their initiatives in the future.
Tourism Department spokesperson Amanda Murphy said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that the initiative was the result of a collaborative effort between Lee’s office and the department to offset losses in the hospitality industry. in 2020.
Between March and December 2020, the state lost $ 300 million in tax revenue from the tourism industry, its second largest revenue generator, although overall Tennessee continued to exceed the total. income from the previous year throughout the pandemic.
“While much of the state experiences pre-pandemic or higher hotel occupancy levels, challenges remain in our major cities that still feel the loss of international conventions, business and travel,” Murphy said in an email.
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The Beacon Center of Tennessee, a fiscally conservative think tank, released a statement saying “it’s not the government’s role to give our hard-earned taxes to tourists who want to experience Broadway,” Nashville’s honky tonk strip.
“While Governor Lee has done a good job balancing lives and livelihoods during the pandemic, this is a poorly thought out plan,” said Mark Cunningham, vice president of strategy and communications of Beacon.
“The government picks winners and losers since only four Tennessee cities are included as part of the promotion, and this will likely end up being another taxpayer-funded giveaway in Nashville.”
After The Tennessean made inquiries with various officials on Tuesday morning to determine the source of funding for the airline ticket initiative – and before receiving a response from the state’s tourism department – Senator Bo Watson, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, confirmed that $ 2.5 million had been allocated in the budget for a tourism marketing project.
The initiative will provide the first 10,000 people to book two-night stays at hotels in Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga with $ 250 airline vouchers if they book their accommodations through TennesseeOnMe.com.
Watson, R-Hixson, noted that the state’s tourism department has already received one-time funds for marketing efforts and has had success with them. Watson, however, said he would “leave it up to the tourism ministry to defend the strategy.”
“This might not be the strategy I would use, but I don’t do hospitality and marketing work,” Watson said.
But the finance president took issue with the wording of Lee’s “Tennessee on Me” jingle.
“The people of Tennessee invite you to come to Tennessee, not the governor,” Watson said. “It’s not the governor’s money, it’s taxpayers’ money.”
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