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Slimantics: Restaurant tax is Jeff Smith's albatross


Slim Smith



In an earlier time, Rep. Jeff Smith would be known as a dandy, defined as a person unduly devoted to style, neatness and fashion in dress and appearance. 


From his colorful suits to his spats to his carefully-coiffed handlebar mustache, Smith doesn't enter a room, he invades it. 


Quick to make a self-deprecating joke, he uses his humor and peacock charm to cast himself as a simple country lawyer and, of course, a good Christian. 


What's not to like? 


But there is another side of Smith too. He clearly loves his status as a "player" in the legislature, where he has served for 27 years now. To be in the presence of Smith for more that five minutes is to not have to wonder who the chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee might be. 


In the past, Smith has always been able to rely on those two aspects of his personality. He's a "common man" who can "bring home the bacon" for the folks back home. 


For Smith, those qualities have allowed him to escape the consequences of his actions. 


To be fair, there are always going to be instances where a legislator is compelled to make unpopular choices. In those instances, the legislator may have an understanding of an issue citizens do not possess. In those cases, we can commend the legislator's independence even when we disagree with his position. 


But twice in the past three years, Smith has acted in ways that have not served the interests of the people. In both cases, his explanations for his actions have failed to be convincing. 


In 2016, Smith killed a bill that would have allowed microbreweries to sell their product on site, something other states had been permitting for years, enabling the industry to flourish. 


The significance of that act was immediately recognized. California preservationist Gayle Guynup had purchased the old train depot in Columbus in late 2014 and her initial plans called for converting the building into a micro-brewery. The business plan depended on on-site sales. It was an idea that everyone seemed to embrace -- aside from one person. 


That micro-brewery plan died with Smith's decision to kill the bill. Today, the depot is divided into apartments and commercial space, the latter of which has yet to secure tenants. 


When asked why he killed the bill, Smith would only say it was to keep a promise to someone. To this day, he has not revealed to whom that promise was made. It certainly wasn't a promise to the people he represents. 


As had always been the case, he managed to "aw, shucks" the matter and was soon returned to the good graces of the "forgive-and-forget" folks back home. 


But in March, Smith committed an act that no amount of preening and patronizing will spare him. 


He's finished, whether he realizes it or not. 


This time, Smith personally sabotaged the county's 2-percent restaurant tax. On June 30, the tax that provides about $2 million to promote tourism and economic development will expire. By the end of the year, the county's Convention and Visitors Bureau will be without operational funds, barring some sort of miracle. It's a crippling blow to our county's tourism industry, the businesses that benefit from tourism and every citizen of the county. 


It's been almost two months since Smith killed the restaurant tax. 


And unlike the micro-brewery incident, the folks back home haven't forgotten.  


During Wednesday's Columbus Lowndes Chamber of Commerce Legislative Luncheon, Smith faced the issue point-blank. 


The question: How can voters trust you to represent their interests when you chose to vote your own interests? 


It was a question that stung Smith, who objected to the characterization and tried to extract himself from that unpleasant predicament with humor. 


"I got 25 calls from people calling me everything but a Christian," he quipped. 


Only a few folks chuckled. 


For most of the audience, there is nothing particularly funny about the damage he has done. 


This time there will be no forgetting as the full implications of the loss of tourism/development are felt. 


Smith's term ends in another year. 


It is likely to be his last. 


This time, there will be no forgetting.


Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]


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