NASHVILLE — A panel of Tennessee state senators on Monday rejected a bill that would have established a special permit fee for ATV riders in Scott County during event weekends, after questioning the constitutionality of the legislation.
The bill, which was requested by Scott County Commission, would have established a $10 fee for non-residents and a $4 fee for residents to ride ATVs in Scott County during event periods. As written, the bill would have levied the fee against all ATV riders, whether they were riding on public roads that are open to ATVs or on public or private trails.
Criticism of the bill began early in Monday's proceedings before the Senate Transportation & Safety Committee, with Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon, questioning the justification for treating in-county and out-of-county residents differently.
Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, who was carrying the bill on Scott County's behalf, answered by reading from a resolution adopted by County Commission late last year, in which commissioners said the fee was needed because of the increased burden on the county's emergency services and road department during ATV-themed events. Yager said most of the attendees of those events are from outside Scott County.
But the panel of lawmakers were not satisfied with the county's justification, and the constitutionality of the bill was questioned.
"To me, this seems to be constitutionally suspect, to treat someone different from one county than another," said Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville.
The committee's legal counsel opined that the courts would likely uphold such a law if a "rational basis" could be shown for treating out-of-county residents differently. But Tracy questioned whether such rationale had been shown, saying that local residents cause just as much impact on ATVs as visitors to Scott County.
Scott County requested the bill late last year, after learning of a new state law that took effect Jan. 1, allowing residents and non-residents to register ATVs to be operated on most public roads. For an annual fee, ATV owners can register their off-road vehicles with the state and drive them on any street except for state and federal highways.
That law threw a roadblock in the path of Scott County's plan to ask the state for a private act allowing the county to establish a similar pay-to-ride permit system that would apply to Scott County only. Supporters of the effort on County Commission said more money is needed to offset the cost to Scott County during events such as Brimstone Recreation's White Knuckle Event on Memorial Day weekend.
While no rough estimate has been offered as to how much it costs Scott County for emergency services and road repairs during ATV-themed events, some county leaders have argued that the cost is significant. Representatives from Brimstone and Trails End Campground have countered by arguing that those private companies pay for most of the costs themselves.
Currently, there are two ATV events scheduled for 2017: Brimstone's White Knuckle Event in May, and Paragon in September. Together, the events are expected to draw more than 10,000 visitors to Scott County.
The legislation considered in the State Senate on Monday would have originally assessed a $10 permit fee for riders on public or private trails. Yager, who was obligated to sponsor the bill on Scott County's behalf, as part of the county's legislative delegation in Nashville, told the Independent Herald that the bill would be amended to more closely reflect County Commission's resolution that was forwarded to the state last year.
That amendment was offered before deliberations began in committee on Monday. However, even as amended, the bill would have still allowed County Commission to assess a $10 fee for ATV riders on private trails — meaning all attendees at Brimstone events could have been charged a fee by the county for riding trails that are privately-owned and are maintained by Brimstone. The broadly-worded bill appeared to subject any ATV rider in Scott County to the permit fee during event periods, even if they were not riding as part of the event itself.
Ultimately, the Transportation & Safety Committee rejected the bill by a 6-2 vote. Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, R-Knoxville, and chairman Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, cast the only votes in favor of the legislation. Joining Tracey and Stevens in voting against the measure were Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, Sen. Frank Nicely, R-Strawberry Plains, and Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville.
While much of the dissenting discussion centered on the constitutionality of charging out-of-county residents excessively, compared to in-county residents, Nicely had pointed advice for Scott County on the broader subject of taxes on ATV events.
"In a lot of these rural counties, these off-road vehicles bring a lot of money into the county, a lot of tax dollars. A lot of counties would like to have more," Nicely said. "I hope your county commission realizes when you tax something, you have less of it. If you go to taxing these out-of-county people, you're going to have fewer people coming in and spending the night and buying gas and buying food at a restaurant. I hope they realize that."
A House version of the legislation, sponsored by Rep. Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown, is scheduled in committee later this week.