Tennessee governor delivers 4th State of the State speech

February 1, 2022 GMT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee promised on Monday in his fourth annual address to lawmakers to boost education funding, invest in infrastructure projects and funnel more money to the state’s law enforcement agencies.

The Republican, who is currently running for reelection, focused heavily on Tennessee’s exceptionalism without even mentioning the COVID-19 pandemic still plaguing most of the state — which has consistently struggled with low vaccination rates compared to the rest of the country.

“For 225 years, Tennessee has been a beacon to those who wanted something more and needed a frontier to build their American dream,” Lee said.

Flush with cash from higher-than-expected state revenues and a flood of federal relief funds, Lee outlined a $52.5 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2022-2023. The amount is nearly 20% more than what Lee proposed last year.

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According to the budget, an additional $125 million would be dedicated to boosting teacher salaries. However, just how much of the amount will actually benefit their pay is unknown. Lee’s budget officials haven’t said how much the move will bump up a teacher’s base salary.

The funding comes as Lee looks to overhaul how the state funds its K-12 public school system. He spent months touting the need for a makeover to the 30-year-old funding formula, but he has not yet disclosed how he plans to accomplish that. The administration is promising $750 million more for the new education funding formula, but it would not kick until the budget year after next, and the money would go toward various education grants for the upcoming fiscal year.

“Historically, funds put in the salary pool don’t always make it to deserving teachers,” Lee said. “When we say teachers are getting a raise, there should be no bureaucratic workaround to prevent that. In our updated funding formula, we will ensure a teacher raise is a teacher raise.”

His administration confirmed Monday that the goal is to have something implemented by 2024, but House Speaker Cameron Sexton has already expressed doubts whether the task can be completed during this year’s legislative session.

Meanwhile, Lee confirmed that his administration was backing legislation to “ ensure parents know what materials are available to students in their libraries.” Lee said the goal is to create “great accountability at the local level.”

Across the country, conservative officials have increasingly tried to limit the type of books that children are exposed to, including books that address structural racism and LGBTQ issues. Most recently, a Tennessee school district attracted national attention after officials voted to ban the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus” due to its language and illustration of a nude woman.

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Lee’s address drew criticisms from Democrats, including Rep. Vincent Dixie, who called it a “locker-room pep speech” that lacked substance.

“There was a glaring omission that the governor did not address, and that was his COVID response,” said Dixie, the House Democratic caucus chairman from Nashville.

Also included in the proposed budget is $356 million to build a new multi-agency law enforcement training academy, $150 million to create a violent crime intervention grant and funding to hire 100 more state troopers.

“I believe now more than ever, we must show great discipline and regard for our freedoms. One way we do that is through a small government that contributes to a safe and well-ordered society,” Lee said. “In recent history, big government has attempted to take over society instead of contributing to it. That’s no way to live, and Tennessee has pushed back on that big government.”

An additional $623 million has been allocated for road projects, ranging from improving rural roads to assisting litter removal. Lee said that Tennessee had “an obligation to future generations” to invest in roads and bridges.

Meanwhile, $200 million has been set aside to help Tennessee’s Colleges of Applied Technology, designed to double the state’s skilled workforce by 2026.

In a nod to his gubernatorial reelection campaign, Lee reminded the audience of his anti-abortion stance throughout his first term in office, which has included enacting legislation that banned abortion once cardiac activity is detected in an embryo — or at around six weeks. While no new abortion policy was introduced Monday, Lee said Tennessee’s laws are ready to “provide the maximum possible protection” for the “unborn.” However, the governor acknowledged the state had “significant work to do” in improving services for Tennessee families should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision.