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Attorney Lee Davis
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Art tax on cigarettes

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A pitch to tax cigarette sales to pay for arts projects in Hamilton County included a little jousting among county commissioners Wednesday over who does and doesn't care about poor people.

ArtsBuild, a nonprofit organization that helps fund the arts here, brought a draft resolution to commissioners' public agenda session Wednesday. The organization hopes county residents, given a chance, would support a 20-cents-per-pack tax on cigarettes to pay for programs ranging from arts festivals and choir performances to storytelling, poetry and dance throughout the community.

Lee Davis, a prominent attorney who is chairman of the ArtsBuild board, said access to the arts is more than just cultural education — it also can provide companionship, structure and guidance for struggling young people.

He noted that traditional sources for arts funding, such as private and corporate philanthropy, are changing in the face of demographic shifts.

"We have to do something different we haven't done before," Davis said.

ArtsBuild wants the Hamilton County Commission to ask the local legislative delegation to authorize a public referendum on the Aug. 16, 2016 ballot. The commission then would have to pass a resolution to actually hold a referendum. ArtsBuild met privately with six or seven commissioners in recent weeks on the proposal, but Wednesday's meeting was its first public unveiling.

Davis said ArtsBuild commissioned a poll in August of 503 people likely to vote in that election. He said 63 percent said they would support a cigarette tax and 33 opposed it. Well more than 80 percent of those polled said the arts are important to the community and its economy, he said.

If the voters said yes, the County Commission would name members to an arts commission that would decide how to spend the estimated $3 million to $4 million a year the tax would raise. Answering questions from commissioners, Davis said bringing in other tobacco products — or legal marijuana — would raise the take by an unknown amount.

He re-emphasized — and several commissioners repeated — that the referendum would give county voters a voice and a choice.

District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd, who spends money from his discretionary fund on art projects, noted that Chattanooga has a "vibrant" arts scene. He mentioned a study done in District 6 showing $1.1 million spent on promoting events returned 57,500 attendees who spent $1.3 million and created the equivalent of 68 jobs.

"Is art an economic driver? I would contend that it is," Boyd said.

But District 6 Commissioner Joe Graham said he will not support a tax increase that would have a "ripple effect" on the people and merchants in his district.

"Who this is going to penalize in my district is the poor people," Graham said.

Boyd responded that "the state of Tennessee is run off consumption taxes," which hit lower-income people proportionately harder than middle or higher-income residents. He said that wasn't a valid argument.

Which led Graham to respond heatedly, "I'm not ever going to forget the poor people in my district."

Commissioners took no action on the resolution at the agenda session.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.

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