BMS tax riles GOP

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   An amendment to a private act that would have added a $7 privilege tax to race tickets sold for NASCAR events held at Bristol Motor Speedway had upstate lawmakers ready to trade paint with the measure's Democratic supporters during a session of the House of Representatives on Thursday.
   State Rep. Jerome Cochran said a private act brought before the full House called for a $7 privilege tax on an entertainment event held in Coffee County.
   He said House Majority Caucus Chairman Randy Rinks, D-Savannah, attached an amendment to the act calling for a $7 privilege tax on tickets to events sold in Sullivan County drawing more than 50,000 spectators. Cochran said most House Democrats supported the amendment.
   "We thought it was a joke at first," said Cochran, R-Elizabethton, who voted to table the bill. "It was very bizarre because it came out of nowhere."
   Cochran and Rep. Steve Godsey, R-Blountville, both said they initially thought the amendment was a joke. However, once the motion to table the bill failed, both lawmakers knew they were facing a problem.
   "I was shocked," Godsey said of the amendment. "I didn't think it was too funny."
   Godsey also said Rinks violated an unwritten law of the legislature -- thou shalt not impose a tax on another member's constituency.
   "We don't go meddling in somebody else's business," said Godsey who felt sponsoring a measure that affected another district on the other end of the state was inappropriate.
   When the act came to the House floor for a vote, Republican legislators moved to table the bill. However, Democratic House members voted against tabling the measure. Cochran said he was even more dismayed when Democratic Rep. Nathan Vaughn of Kingsport voted against tabling the bill when it came to the full House floor.
   Given the Bristol races, attendance of 160,000 each, the privilege tax could have meant roughly $2.2 million in new tax revenues for the state. Cochran said the act was ultimately withdrawn from vote by the sponsor and deferred back to House committee when the question of constitutionality was raised. He said that while he felt the Senate would have likely killed the bill, the entire process was disturbing given what it could have cost Northeast Tennessee.
   "It could cost us a great deal," said Cochran. "We were worried we could possibly lose both events." Bristol Motor Speedway hosts two Nextel Cup races, as well as Busch and Craftsman Truck series race events each season. The Tri-Cities area reaps millions of dollars in economic benefits from race weeks. BMS is Sullivan County's second largest taxpayer and has a $397 million direct impact on the region's economy, according to Bristol Chamber of Commerce.
   When Sullivan County Commissioner Mark Vance proposed 10-percent "entertainment tax" on events including the Bristol race tickets in April 2003, BMS representatives said such a move could result in the elimination of at least one race event at Bristol.
   The brouhaha could not come at a trickier time for Bristol. NASCAR officials are reviewing where to add additional events at other tracks in Las Vegas, Texas and Nashville. Poorly attended events such as last week's Subway 400 at the North Carolina Speedway held in Rockingham, N.C., have become ripe for removal to larger, more lucrative venues on the NASCAR circuit. NASCAR moved the fall race previously held at Rockingham to Fontana, Calif., this year.
   Bruton Smith purchased the racetrack from Larry Carrier in 1996. He has invested better than $50 million in the track, doubling the seating capacity and turning Bristol into one of the most popular sites on the NASCAR circuit for fans and drivers alike. Smith's Speedway Motorsports Inc. owns six speedways including the Texas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Lowe's Motor Speedway. Speedway tracks will host 11 Nextel Cup events this season.
   As NASCAR has evolved from a regional phenomenon as Southern as mint juleps to a national craze, the competition to land one race or a second event has gotten fierce. International Speedway Corp., which owns Daytona International Speedway and 11 other tracks that host NASCAR events, is currently scouting sites in Washington state and Oregon for a $200 million-plus facility to stage Nextel Cup, Busch and Craftsman Truck series events.
   Godsey said the volatility surrounding racing locales in NASCAR made Thursday's events all the more troubling. He added that if efforts continued to attach a privilege tax to a race, the consequences for the region could be dire.
   "It would be very easy for them to jerk one of these events out of here," he said.