Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee proposed a $41.8 billion budget Monday night in his third State of the State address, touting his administration’s commitment to personal freedoms and local control throughout a year shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lee addressed members of the Tennessee Legislature at the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville. In previous years, the governor’s annual address has been held in the House chamber, but legislators approved a location change this year to enable social distancing.
“Let me say that it’s good to be here in person,” Lee opened to applause.
The governor recalled a year of tremendous challenge, including deadly tornadoes in Nashville and Chattanooga, violence and unrest, the unemployment crisis, economic turmoil and the bombing in downtown Nashville on Christmas morning, all amid the scourge of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tennessee had more per capita cases of COVID-19 in December than any other location in the world. More than 10,000 Tennesseans have died from COVID-19 complications.
“There was more pressure than ever to implement lockdowns and mandates and stay-at-home orders, but we trusted our people,” Lee said. “We encouraged people to gather differently in their homes for holidays. Tennesseans responded, and helped us blunt a post-holiday surge.”
Lee touted his administration’s pandemic response did not require extended business closures and did not close churches, and he thanked health care workers for their lifesaving work throughout the year.
Lee also acknowledged nationwide divisions brought on by the 2020 presidential election and the disturbing events of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“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 10th amendment allows,” Lee said. “Tennessee knows what we need a lot better than the federal government.”
Lee also said he plans to propose, as he did last year, a bill that would allow Tennesseans to carry handguns open or concealed, without a permit.
In a response to the State of the State address, Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Raumesh Akbari said that there is no reason to take up a constitutional carry bill.
“I went through the process to get a gun permit. It’s so easy,” Akbari said. “I got a 90% on my shooting, OK, I’m that good. So there’s no reason for us to pass constitutional carry.”
The main task of the evening is to present the governor’s budget priorities to the Legislature.
Lee’s biggest pitch was asking legislators to approve more than $900 million in capital outlay funding for maintenance and renovation projects for state buildings, state parks and universities and community college facilities – the largest allocation for capital investments in state history.
“Those of us who run businesses know that deferring maintenance is a bad idea and, therefore, we have ignored the temptation to put off these projects amid economic uncertainty,” Lee said.
“I think it’s great that we’re investing in buildings, but I want us to invest a little bit more people,” Akbari said. “I want us to make sure that folks can have a good education and a good job, and that they can be safe.”
Lee also proposed to invest $200 million in broadband internet expansion. This investment would come in addition to the $61 million in federal pandemic relief allocated to broadband expansion last year, and add to nearly $176 million in grants for broadband from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Federal Communications Commission.
“Whether it’s running a small business, accessing virtual learning, or accessing health care via telemedicine, slow internet speeds have many in rural Tennessee left at a disadvantage,” Lee said. “I am ready for us to solve this issue once and for all.”
Lee also proposed $200,000 in one-time funding for local government infrastructure projects such as roads and new schools.
Lee’s budget includes $120 million in funding for teacher pay raises to add to funding allocated by the Legislature last month during the special legislative session.
Lee also proposed a 4% raise for state employees. However, while the state directly controls state employee pay, most school districts are funded with a mix of state and local dollars.
“Both those pay raises are really small because we cancelled 100% of the pay raises that were supposed to go into effect in last year’s budget, because we thought the economy was taking a downturn,” Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Yarbro told The Center Square. “On the education side, the BEP is so broken that teachers are going to see very little bang for the buck.”
Lee also proposed $6.5 million to extend postpartum health care coverage for women on TennCare from the current 60 days to 12 months, in addition to significant funding for adoption assistance and extended TennCare benefits for adopted children.
“But being pro-life isn’t just about defending the unborn, and we must also think about how to use our passion for this issue to improve the lives of struggling families,” Lee said.
The Legislature will continue this year’s regular session Tuesday morning.
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