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Commission Chairman Chester Bankston

NASHVILLE — An effort to let Hamilton County voters decide whether to approve a 20 cent-per-pack cigarette tax to fund arts projects appears to have gone up in smoke at the County Commission level.

On Tuesday, Hamilton County Commission Chairman Chester Bankston said supporters didn't get enough signatures from fellow commissioners to ask state lawmakers to push the issue in the Tennessee Legislature.

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"It's gone," said Bankston, noting the letter needed a two-thirds majority — six signatures on the nine-member commission — to move forward. "It didn't get enough signatures so I removed it. There just wasn't enough support for it. There wasn't enough support from [local legislators] and there wasn't enough support here."

Earlier Tuesday, Commissioner Marty Haynes, who opposed the issue, said the last time he looked at the letter request, he saw only five signatures.

The tax request was made in October by officials from ArtsBuild, a nonprofit organization that helps fund arts in Hamilton County. The group brought a draft resolution to commissioners' public agenda session and a poll saying 63 percent of 503 county residents, given a chance, would support the proposed cigarette tax.

It was intended to fund programs ranging from arts festivals and choir performances to storytelling, poetry and dance throughout the county. Estimates said it would have generated $3 million to $4 million in new revenue annually.

Lee Davis, a local attorney and chairman of the ArtsBuild board, said Tuesday night the survey showed nearly two-thirds of those polled "were in favor of a cigarette tax to support arts, culture and education."

"We're asking the County Commission for permission to put it up on the ballot in August for an up or down vote by the county," Davis said. "We felt it was a fair question to ask whether or not the county supported arts, culture" for education and economic development "which we've seen is an important issue."

A vibrant arts scene makes the community more attractive and aids with economic development, he said.

"We felt the fairest way was to let the voters decide," he added. Noting five commissioners signed the letter of intent and four didn't, Davis said, "I understand. The idea of raising taxes is never popular. Yet, you still have worthwhile objectives you got to pay for. So we felt it was fair to put it before the voters and evidently we do not have the 'super majority we need' to move forward."

Davis noted the issue would have had to go to the Legislature anyway and get legislators' support. That was "far from certain they would have been supportive or not," he said. "We certainly would have liked to have engaged in that conversation."

As for what options there are now, Davis said, "we speak to the legislative delegation. We see if there's interest there. We speak to the county mayor, Jim Coppinger, and see if there's interest there."

If unsuccessful there, Davis said, "there may be a possibility you get a direct referendum on the ballot by going out and doing a petition drive." He recalled that would require signatures of 10 percent of registered voters. "We have not explored that to date."

Proponents will likely "circle back" with commissioners "to see if this is the final place the County Commission comes out on it," he said. "I respect that's their decision. Commissioners have a district to answer to. If that's where they come out on it, we'll just have to look at what else we can do to support education, arts and culture and economic development."

Tennessee smokers currently pay a statewide tax of 62 cents per pack.

Had the proposal received the necessary support from commissioners, it would have been presented to local legislators to introduce in the Legislature's 2016 session.

State lawmakers' approval, uncertain in the GOP-dominated Legislature, would have sent it back to the County Commission for approval before it went before voters for a yes/no vote on the August ballot.

Earlier Tuesday, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said he wanted commissioners to vote publicly and not just sign a letter requesting the legislation.

"I've had some conversations with some of the commissioners and some of the [legislative] delegation members, and like we always do, we'll have a serious conversation if there's a two-thirds vote of the commission," McCormick said. "I do think we want to have a public vote rather than just a letter signed. I mentioned that to a couple of them."

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, chairman of the county's legislative delegation, said some lawmakers questioned whether the money from a cigarette tax would be better put toward indigent health care or for local K-12 education to hire art teachers. There were also questions about oversight of how money gets spent, the senator said.

Meanwhile, Gardenhire noted, lawmakers already face a "heavy discussion coming up over a possible gas tax increase that a lot of us will be involved in and to muddy the waters with another tax will just not be favorable at this time."

In an interview earlier Tuesday, Haynes said he has spoken "to all but one state legislator in Hamilton County. Every one said they were not going to take it up in Nashville."

Commissioner Joe Graham, who didn't sign the letter, noted he's heard from an "overwhelming amount of constituents." While it's usually "hard to get them riled up," Graham said, most were saying "absolutely not" to the tax referendum.

"Some of the concerns that I've been hearing is how do you pick one [nonprofit group] over another?" Graham asked, noting the county has had to cut funding to groups including the Orange Grove Center, which serves people with intellectual disabilities.

And Graham also had a problem with the process of using signatures on a letter for the request to lawmakers instead of a public vote.

"We're doing the public's business," Graham said. "It should be done publicly — not on a sheet of paper in a back room" at the courthouse.

Commissioner Sabrena Smedley said she too didn't sign the letter request to lawmakers.

Haynes said Commissioner Jim Fields also hadn't signed the letter when he checked last week. He said commissioners signing the letter were Commissioners Bankston, Greg Beck, Randy Fairbanks and Warren Mackey.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com, 615-255-0550 or follow via twitter at AndySher1.

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