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NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's $2.8 million plan to provide thousands of $250 travel vouchers to attract visitors from other states is finding a rocky landing with critics of his policies on unemployment and other issues.

Lee is also being accused of heavy-handed self-promotion for a video on social media with country star Brad Paisley, in which Paisley sings about the "Tennessee on Me" promotion, and Lee insists that the country singer change the lyrics to "Tennessee on Governor Lee."

The travel vouchers are funded by taxpayers, not the governor.

Critics range from Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge, over the program's cost, to a group of progressive pastors who charged it smacks of misplaced priorities in light of Lee's early July 3 halt to the federally funded coronavirus pandemic unemployment boosts of $300 a week for thousands of Tennesseans.

Another salvo came from the free-market Beacon Center of Tennessee, which questions why the state should be spending any taxpayer dollars to fly tourists to Nashville, Chattanooga, Memphis and Knoxville.

The 60-second Paisley video is hitting Facebook, Twitter and other social media by way of a $200,000 state expense. That doesn't include $120,000 from the Department of Tourism and the state's ad agency to develop the spot.

The largest cost of the program is $2.5 million to provide up to 10,000 tourists with $250 if visitors book at least two nights in a hotel here.

For state government to recoup the cost of the voucher for an individual passenger through its 7% sales tax on goods, the person would have to spend about $3,570 on taxable items while visiting Tennessee.

In the video promotion, Lee and Paisley interact as Paisley strums and sings "come see Tennessee on me, enjoy your free flight. Come see Tennessee on me, when you book two nights."

The attempted comedic touch comes as Lee says the lyrics could use a change, telling Paisley that "the state's buying all these airline tickets and giving them away to anybody who books two nights in a hotel room to come to Tennessee, so it's 'Tennessee on me.'"

Paisley feigns confusion but eventually obliges and sings the jingle as "Tennessee on Governor Lee."

"Yeah," Lee says, then sings out "and not on Brad Paisley."

After Paisley echoes that and they sing the lines together, an enthusiastic Lee declares, "That's it, man. I'm getting chills."

An unamused McNally issued a statement saying the Tennessee Department of Tourism's mission "is to motivate travel to and within Tennessee" and the industry has already "bounced back in record time."

McNally said he "would have preferred a more traditional approach" to marketing versus "direct transfers of Tennessee taxpayer money to mostly out-of-state recipients."

He called it "especially troubling that the promotion is limited to our major cities," and while not singling out Nashville and Memphis by name, added that "at least two of those cities exacerbated the economic crisis by instituting overly aggressive lockdown policies."

Moreover, McNally said, it "makes little sense to limit the promotion to those cities when our rural areas were hit as hard, if not harder, by the economic crisis than those cities." McNally put both the governor's office and tourism officials on notice he wants them to "provide more detail to the legislature about such initiatives during the budget process in the future."

The $2.5 million sought by the Lee administration was itemized in a massive major budget amendment affecting a number of areas of state government. Such last-minute administration amendments are routine.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said while he had not seen the ad, his view is the state for years has stuck by a traditional approach with billboards and television advertising. The administration has chosen a "nontraditional approach that sort of speeds up" things, he noted, adding, "I'm going to sit back and see how effective it is."

Tourism took a major hit during the pandemic, Sexton noted.

"I see it as more of a marketing campaign to get people to remember," Sexton said. "That's what I see it as."

House Finance Committee Chair Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, said state tourism officials "have really done a great job" over the past decade in marketing the state, generating "great numbers" and a "great rate of return" for investments made.

"Hopefully, they've done their homework, and I hope this one will do the same," Hazlewood added. "The only thing that I wish were perhaps different, it's the people of Tennessee who are paying this bill."

She said while it might not fit the rhyming pattern, credit "should be on the people of Tennessee because those are taxpayer dollars."

Senate Finance Committee Chair Bo Watson, R-Hixson, called it "an interesting appeal to bring hospitality to Tennessee. Look, we know that's an industry that's really been hammered by the pandemic."

The tourism department has "had a pretty good record" over the past decade, Watson noted. He said while "I suppose this was a good way to attract people" to the state, he believes people "want to come anyway."

"It's not the strategy I would have used," Watson added.

The progressive pastors took issue with the coincidence of the advertising campaign and Lee's move to end federal pandemic unemployment relief for struggling Tennesseans.

"There are a lot of elected officials who claim on their campaign trail, who claim when they grab the microphone when they're in legislative session, that they have a strong Christian faith," said Pastor James Turner II of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Nashville.

But, Turner added, "it seems that they have drifted away from Biblical teachings, and they have drifted away from their Christian faith and they do not care for the least of these."

He noted the Bible's Book of Acts "tells us that in the early church there was not a needy person among them, yet here we are in Tennessee with leadership that claims the Christian faith, yet is ignoring those who need the help the most."

Mark Cunningham, the Beacon Center's vice president of strategy and communications, said that while Lee has "done a great job balancing lives and livelihoods during the pandemic, this is absolutely a step in the wrong direction."

It's another example of government picking "winners and losers," Cunningham added. That's because only the state's big four counties are included in the promotion, and Nashville likely benefits most, he said.

"While this promotion is well-intentioned, it is not the role of government to give out our hard-earned tax dollars to tourists who want to check out Broadway, the Chattanooga Choo Choo or Beale Street," he said.

The Tennessee Democratic Party weighed in on Twitter, charging Lee is "choosing to spend our tax dollars buying plane tickets for tourists RIGHT AFTER canceling half a billion in unemployment benefits. This is what Tennessee's 'conservative' leadership looks like — waste, flash and absolutely nothing that helps working people."

In response to questions posed by the Times Free Press, Lee Press Secretary Casey Black said no federal tax stimulus dollars were used for the campaign. The $2.5 million was funded through the administration's major amendment to the proposed Fiscal Year 2021/2022 budget. It is limited to 10,000 vouchers.

Asked how the idea got off the ground, Murphy said in an email that "the idea originated from collaborative efforts between the governor's office and Department of Tourist Development. The development of the campaign including creative, marketing and execution were led by Tourist Development with our agency of record, VMLY&R, and input from tourism partners in Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga."

Murphy said people wishing to qualify for the $250 voucher must book through the website TennesseeOnMe.com. Vouchers are limited to one per travel package.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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