Push for county cigarette tax referendum goes up in smoke

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, reports the Times-Free Press.

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.

“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.”