JOHNSON CITY - The topic of smoking was a common theme for local lawmakers Friday as the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual legislative meeting.
State Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, said state legislation supporting a public ban on smoking was moving rapidly through the House of Representatives after much debate over the logistics of the bill.
"The basic premise of this piece of legislation is to ban smoking in all public places - restaurants, businesses - and it's gained a lot of support," said Hill before a room full of local business leaders at the Holiday Inn.
"There has been an amendment added to the bill on places you're carded. Basically, this is for bars and nightclubs where smoking would still be allowed."
Hill said a proposed 40 cent increase to the cigarette tax was finding its share of opposition in the House Agriculture Committee, which newly elected state Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, sits on.
According to Ford, the cigarette tax has stalled simply because Gov. Phil Bredesen can't find the votes to support it.
"(Tobacco) is a dwindling revenue source, and there aren't many legislators who feel like adding 40 cents onto the cigarette tax," Ford said. "Maybe they'll add something eventually, but I don't think it's going to be 40 cents.
"If it was implemented, the governor has said Washington County and Johnson City schools would get around $1 million apiece."
"The governor has proposed a $27 billion budget, and a cigarette tax would generate between $214 million and $218 million," Hill said. "Unfortunately, this is putting schools last.
"Our state is going to have about a $500 million surplus after it goes through the funding board review in April. With the rainy day fund, the surplus and the tobacco fund, that's going to be a total of about $1.5 billion, and we need legislators who can stand up and say we don't need a new tax increase.
"The people of Washington County didn't send me to Nashville to raise taxes."
Hill said he would also be spending this session working on a bill titled the Transparency in Government Act.
"This law would take every check that is written out of the state treasury and post it on the state Web site," he said. "Though it's been met with some resistance from some people who don't want that much light shone on the state's financial dealings."
Washington County Attorney John Rambo questioned Hill and Ford on the possibility of obtaining funding from the state for school building and jail expansion/justice center projects the county is currently undertaking.
"I believe that we need to be able to use excess lottery funds for school building," Hill said. "That's why I'm supporting a piece of legislation by Representative David Hawk of Greeneville that says just that.
"As far as jails go, I think we need to build a regional jail because the state is choosing to invest its money in other ways, and this is a growing problem throughout our region. It's time to sit down and figure out how we can make this happen."