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GAINSBORO, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Lee is defending his new $2.82 million "Tennessee on Me" tourism promotion effort against criticisms, predicting the program will generate a "great return on investment."

By providing $250 air flight vouchers funded with tax money, the governor hopes to lure up to 10,000 out-of-state visitors into booking hotel rooms.

"Always a lot of critics. But that comes with politics," Lee told reporters when asked about complaints from his fellow GOP leaders and others during his trip Thursday to rural Jackson County on the Upper Cumberland Plateau.

The visit came as the governor continues promoting Tennessee's 225th anniversary this year as a state.

Lee said his administration is committed to "creating opportunity and jobs in this state." He predicted the marketing campaign "will have a great return on investment" and promote tourism, calling it "a very important industry in this state."

Lee promised that it is just one element "of a comprehensive approach we will take in tourism investment over the year."

The marketing effort began July 4 with a 60-second video on social media featuring Lee and country music star Brad Paisley. The overall marketing effort has drawn criticism from Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker, as well as other Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

Tennessee has committed $2.5 million for up to 10,000 flight vouchers through a special appropriation for tourism marketing. It was among dozens of last-minute expenditures added in a final administration budget amendment in the spring.

Another $200,000 from existing Tourism Department funds is going to promote the offer on social media while $120,000 from department funds went toward the marketing ad production expense. The airline vouchers are only obtained as visitors reserve their hotel package on a special website that requires a minimum two-night stay.

One target of critics has been Lee's playful back-and-forth banter with Paisley, similar to a series of light-hearted insurance ads the entertainer made previously with former NFL and University of Tennessee star quarterback Peyton Manning.

As Paisley strums and sings "Tennessee on Me," Lee tells him the state is "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 pretends not to understand before finally singing "Tennessee on Gov. Lee," which draws approval from the governor.

The governor has been criticized from across the political spectrum for seeming to take credit for the purchase of the travel vouchers, when in fact the taxpayers are on the hook.

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Gov. Bill Lee speaks with Jackson County, Tenn., Mayor Randy Heady on Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Gainesboro prior to the governor speaking to crowd for an event celebrating Tennessee's 225th anniversary year of becoming a state. (Andy Sher/Times Free Press)

The timing of the ad has also been questioned. It launched July 4, one day after Lee brought an early end to a $300-a-week federal unemployment boost that would have been available to struggling Tennesseans until September.

Lawmakers who knew nothing about the planned promotion have also criticized Lee for leaving them out of the loop.

"There should have been some consultation" with the legislature, said Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga. "People could interpret that action [appearing in the ad] as personal politics as opposed to bettering the economy of the state."

Calling it an "unforced error" on Lee's part, Hakeem said he believes lawmakers as a result "will look more closely at the budgets as they come forward. Those kind of surprises, I don't feel the legislature appreciates them."

The ad is running on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. Another complaint is that the $2.5 million being spent on hotel vouchers per family or group is only for out-of-state visitors and that the campaign is solely targeting those flying into the state's four biggest airports in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville and Memphis.

McNally said last week that Tennessee's tourism industry has already "bounced back in record time" and that he would have "preferred a more traditional approach" to marketing versus "direct transfers of Tennessee taxpayer money to mostly out-of-state recipients." McNally also said "there should be more outreach to rural areas."

Lee said Thursday he and McNally have not discussed the marketing effort criticism but stressed they have a "very good working relationship." Emphasizing he is not ignoring rural areas, the governor noted Thursday the state is providing considerable funding this year for state parks, many of which are located in rural areas. And he said he plans to do more.

The Tennessee on Me campaign will continue, Lee said, noting, "it's already rolled out. It's out there. We're fortunate that we had a global music guy in Brad Paisley willing to push that out through his channel. It was a message sent out to millions of people across America that Tennessee is a place to think about coming to."

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

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