‘Tennessee On Me’ faces criticism as campaign begins one day after unemployment benefits end

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Governor Bill Lee is facing blowback after announcing he will give $250 flight vouchers for out-of-state tourists just a day after he ended the $300 in federally supported unemployment benefits early.

“Come see Tennessee on me enjoy your free flight,” country music star Brad Paisley said. He teamed up with Lee to announce the “Tennessee On Me” campaign for free airline flights.

Lee is taking full credit for making the funds available.

“The state’s buying all these airline tickets and giving them away to anybody that books two nights in a hotel room to come to Tennessee, so maybe it should be Tennessee on Governor Lee,” the state’s 50th governor said in the commercial.

“Lack of better terms, slap in the face,” Josh Hubbard from the Tri-Cities said.

Hubbard and his wife, who has cancer, were both sidelined by doctors due to COVID and were receiving unemployment benefits.

“This extra $300, I really don’t understand why they think that’s a lavish lifestyle, that, that will be enough to keep someone from going to work — it’s not,” Hubbard said.

Tennessee taxpayers are paying $2.5 million for 10,000 airline vouchers.

“It’s quite shocking,” Representative John Clemmons (D-Nashville) said.

Clemmons, one of the more vocal Democrats in the legislature, said the new initiative to boost tourism is more about corporate interest.

“If you saw downtown Nashville on the 4th of July, if you saw pictures from Gatlinburg, our tourism industry’s coming back strong,” Clemmons said. “The question is what are we going to prioritize?”

The $250 digital gift cards are from Delta, American, and Southwest Airlines and are for visitors who go to the Tennessee metro areas.

“Our schools aren’t better, our teachers aren’t given their pay raises, our bridges are still crumbling, our rural hospitals are still closing, so where’s that money going — the answer is corporate handouts and this is yet another corporate handout,” Clemmons said.

News 2 reached out to Governor Bill Lee’s office for an interview and was referred to the tourism department. A spokesperson from the Tennessee Department of Tourism released a statement saying:

“The tourism campaign is funded by state funds in the Dept. of Tourist Development’s budget and is entirely separate from the temporary federally-funded pandemic unemployment program.”

Lt. Governor Randy McNally released a statement saying he was not aware of the budget item before the campaign started.

“I was not briefed on the details of the promotion prior to launch. The mission of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development is to motivate travel to and within Tennessee. While the tourism industry in our major cities was hard hit during the COVID crisis, it has bounced back in record time. Under the circumstances, I would have preferred a more traditional approach to tourism development rather than direct transfers of Tennessee taxpayer money to mostly out-of-state recipients. It is especially troubling that the promotion is limited to our major cities. At least two of those cities exacerbated the economic crisis by instituting overly aggressive lockdown policies. 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. I will be asking the administration and the Department of Tourist Development to provide more detail to the legislature about such initiatives during the budget process in the future.”

Visitors can book between now and September and must visit before the end of the year. More than 60 hotels are participating in the tourism campaign.

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