Despite the past year’s events, Governor Bill Lee had plenty of good news for Tennesseans in his State of the State Address Monday night. The General Assembly appeared to agree with the governor’s assessments – at many points throughout the address, their socially-distanced, masked audience rose to applaud Lee.
“Scripture has a lot to say about those crossroads and what to do on the heels of suffering. Where do we find promise in this season?” opened Lee. “The promise is found in perseverance which produces character that leads to hope. Tennesseans will know tonight that tragedy has no hold on who we are or where we are headed. Tragedy won’t define us, it won’t rob us of the opportunity that 2021 holds.”
Lee began by acknowledging the upcoming 225 Years of Statehood, a yearlong anniversary celebration starting in June. He stated that he will travel and host events in all 95 counties.
Lee reported that Tennessee was one of the first to have early testing, to offer free testing, to purchase masks for every citizen, to supply teachers and classrooms with personal protective equipment (PPE), to and to test nursing home staff and residents ahead of the federal mandate. As a result, Lee noted that Tennessee had a lower fatality rate overall in nursing homes than other states.
“This pandemic has exposed that when the government feels unprepared, it’s natural to have the temptation to think that growing the size of government and reaching for the nearest mandate will save everything. But not in Tennessee,” stated Lee.
Additionally, Lee reported that 146 of 147 districts have in-person options for students. Shelby County Schools (SCS) remains the only school district to not offer any version of in-person learning. He added that Tennessee has consistently been in the top ten for vaccine distribution. Their distribution plan was reportedly recognized by former Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Director Robert Redfield as “one of the most medically sound and practical plans in the country.”
As for the current climate of the pandemic in the state, Lee reported that total cases have plummeted to two-thirds of what they were 6 weeks ago, and that hospitalizations have dropped over 60 percent since their peak. He credited health care workers and the National Guard for those improvements.
“One last thing on the subject of executive orders that’s very important to me: our executive orders explicitly protected houses of worship from being regulated or shut down in any way,” stated Lee.
Lee reported that many aspects of the state’s economy are “roaring,” some even “more prosperous” than last year – including the workforce participation rate. At its worst, Lee shared that unemployment was over 15 percent – he reported that it is 6.4 percent currently.
The governor gave some of the credit to several initiatives launched by the state to combat unemployment, such as the Tennessee Talent Exchange. After its launch in June of last year, Lee noted that the Tennessee Business Relief program distributed $220 million to 27,000 small businesses. He added that its successor, the Supplemental Employer Recovery Grant (SERG) launched in October 2020 with $125 million set aside for aid, has given around 1,300 businesses some $30 million in funding.
He reported that Tennessee is 1 of only 7 states to have positive economic growth since April 2020. Lee thanked the General Assembly for its “strong fiscal position” to have made possible Tennessee’s rank as the third least-taxed state in the nation. In regard to proper expenditure of federal relief funds, Lee remarked on the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group as “good stewardship of federal dollars,” with its bipartisan and transparency with the public and press.
The governor shared that they would be investing the largest capital improvements and maintenance budget in history. This would total $900 million invested in state buildings and higher education campuses, and another $30 million to eliminate a backlog of deferred state park maintenance.
Lee promised to fully fund the Basic Education Program (BEP) formula, and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) outcomes based formula to ensure student recovery from pandemic learning losses. He assured Tennesseans that the combined rainy day and TennCare reserve funds would total the largest in state history at $2 billion.
Additionally, Lee shared that their proactive use of federal relief dollars on the unemployment trust fund minimized employer tax burdens, preventing a projected 300 percent tax increase on unemployment insurance. The governor noted that over half of the country lost over 75 percent of their trust fund value, while Tennessee has remained fully solvent with the lowest employer tax rate.
“Now, more than ever, we can look at our economic situation and our economic forecast and say: it matters who governs,” asserted Lee. “And conservative principles work.”
Then, Lee recommended a 4 percent raise for state employees, and a $200 million investment in local government and communities for infrastructure grants such as public safety and capital maintenance projects.
Special Legislative Session
The governor abstained from going into detail about the results of the recent special legislative session, which passed significant educational reforms such as a third-grade literacy standard and funding for teacher raises.
“It was bold, and it will change the lives of our children,” remarked Lee.
While the reforms totaled $43 million for teacher-pay raises, Lee recommended an additional $120 million for the 2021-22 budget.
Medicaid Block Grant
Lee promised that this program wouldn’t cut back on the number of people served or compromise on any of the services provided. He also preemptively committed the shared savings to initiatives such as shortening the waiting list for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Additionally, Lee stated that $6.5 million would be invested in postpartum coverage for all women receiving TennCare benefits. He asserted that this would extend their coverage from 60 days to 12 months. Then, Lee noted that $2 million investment would be invested in a “healthcare safety net,” and $6.5 million to a mental health safety net for school-aged children struggling with mental health issues.
Lee noted that Tennessee successfully avoided the issues faced by other states, such as contested results, technology mishaps, and long waiting lines.
“There was no greater stage for partisan politics than the final months of 2020. Partisan divides impacting almost every aspect of American lives. I have great concerns about our country’s faith in the integrity of our election process,” stated Lee. “And with the elections behind us, we will watch with patriotic skepticism, to see if politicians in Washington try to force more government on the states than the Tenth Amendment allows. Tennessee knows what we need a lot better than the federal government does.”
Lee promised that the state would double the number of schools participating in the Governor’s Civics Seal initiative, which aims to educate school-aged children on American historical and civic knowledge.
Lee reiterated that rural Tennessee continues to be a priority for his administration. He proposed $21 million to invest in rural communities in distressed counties to support rural infrastructure, industrial side development, small business development, and revitalizing small town main streets.
Additionally, he proposed $200 million for broadband internet access throughout the state and support for the Ayers Family Foundation, a rural education partnership for improving collegiate attendance and success rates in rural communities. Lee also proposed $10 million to create ten new gift sites, with a priority on communities with the greatest need for workforce revitalization.
The governor noted that his proposed initiative enacted by the General Assembly last year, the Future Workforce Initiative, trained over 200 teachers in STEM-CTE programs and expanded access to AP computer science courses by 75 percent. He also noted that the initiative Apprenticeship Tennessee created the highest number of apprentices in a decade.
Lee pledged $20 million in federal grants to support added tutoring and technology for urban center students.
“The reason that we place so much focus on education is because students should be prepared for productive lives, not just the latest standardized test,” stated Lee. “Students should be prepared for life beyond the classroom.”
Lee reiterated that he is strongly pro-life and would continue to defend that position. On that basis, the governor promised to announce a number of initiatives over this coming year that would make Tennessee a national leader in foster care and adoption.
“Being pro-life isn’t just about defending the unborn. We must also think about how to use our passion for this issue to improve the lives of struggling families,” stated Lee.
The governor added that they are partnering the Department of Child Services (DCS), faith-based office, and several third-party stakeholders to create partnerships between families and churches statewide to place every child in a loving home. Lee also proposed a TennCare coverage extension for adopted youth so they might retain their TennCare eligibility until 18 years old regardless of federal or state adoption assistance eligibility, which he asserted would reduce the fiscal burdens of adoption on their new families.
Lee alluded to proposals reforming the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) that would offer a pathway to prosperity for families while enhancing protections against fraud, waste, and abuse.
Further, the governor promised legislation to enhance neighborhood safety. Lee noted that it would be similar to legislation that died in committee last year due to the pandemic, with an added $4.7 million for day reporting centers and community supervision, and re-entry would be improved.
In a review of last year’s accomplishments, the governor reported that the state had improved training standards for law enforcement, paid for nearly 100 cadets to attend improved training at no cost to communities, added a new class of state troopers, and 20 new TBI agents.
As one of his final promises, Lee pledged that he would introduce new Constitutional carry legislation again.
The governor concluded with an optimistic reflection on the past year.
“This has been a very long and challenging year for our nation and our state. There has been tragic loss of life and loss of incomes and loss of learning for our kids. In many respects, one of the most difficult years in recent history,” concluded Lee. “But I’ve learned over my 61 years of life that God is a redeemer. He takes what is tragic and he makes it transformational. There are things we never would have known. Insights that we never would have been awakened to. From times of trial we become more purposeful. We become more resolute. We see things more clearly. We act with more intention. And we have a greater opportunity, more than ever, to seize the moment and to shape the future. To see the needs of our neighbors around us – every single one of them – and to commit to serving them. Tennesseans: transformation will define us, not tragedy. And the state of our state is, indeed, hopeful.”
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