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Touting Success and Promising More, Lee Enters Second Year

State of Tennessee

Raising teacher salaries, investing in mental health, criminal justice reform and limited expansions of TennCare headlined Governor Bill Lee's vision for Tennessee in 2020. In his annual State of the State address, Lee kicked off his second year in office with a list of priorities he wants the state and its lawmakers to consider.

While he supports school choice efforts, Lee pointed out most Tennessee children attend public schools, and said "the majority of our efforts must remain focused there." Mentioning the difficulty many local school districts are having in recruiting and retaining good teachers, Lee proposed spending $117 million to boost salaries for educators. Over the next two years, Lee's goal is to raise salaries so that no teacher makes less than $40,000 a year.

Lee also backed a plan to encourage would-be teachers as early as high school. It would continue in college, with a requested $8.5 million for scholarship money. Colleges and universities will be invited to create their own teacher-training programs, and Lee asked for $4 million to aid professional development for teachers already working in the state's public schools.

All of Lee's newly-proposed funding for education totals $600 million.

Lee referenced the TennCare block grant proposal he submitted to federal officials last November. The state is still waiting for a formal response from Washington. In the meantime, Lee said he wanted to combat maternal and infant mortality rates for those covered by TennCare. He said the state would launch a three-year pilot program that would extend TennCare postpartum coverage from two months to a full year. TennCare officials asked for that change in budget hearings last November.

Citing statstics that show six in ten children who receive mental health care do so through schools, Lee asked the General Assembly for $250 million to create a school mental health trust fund that would "support the growth and placement of mental health support services in our most at-risk schools." Lee said the state Department of Mental Health would expand a program for school mental health liaisons to all 95 counties. It currently operates in 36 counties, including Knox, Anderson, Blount and Roane.

Credit State of Tennessee
Lawmakers applaud Gov. Bill Lee's proposal to raise teacher salaries, Monday, February 3, 2020.

While pledging to be "tough on crime," Lee also made his case for bills he said would improve the state's prison and parole system. Initiatives include expanding drug recovery courts, improving community supervision for newly-released inmates and encouraging employers to hire people who have served their sentences. Those changes, Lee said, would complement his focus on criminal justice reform, potentially reduce recidivism rates and make communities safer.

Lee spoke briefly of his recently-announced push to further restrict abortions in Tennessee, including banning the procedure once a fetal heartbeat is detected.

"We will support pro-life policy," the governor said, "because everything precious is worth protecting."

State Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville), who backs Lee's plans, has pointed out the strict proposals are also aimed at testing whether a conservative U.S. Supreme Court will overturn its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

Some of the address reflected on Lee's accomplishments in 2019. Leading the list was economic development, which the governor said manifested in more than 100 commitments from various businesses that created more than 16,000 jobs. Mitsubishi, Amazon and other companies expanded their already-extant footprints in Tennessee in 2019, something Lee said made the state "the envy of many states."

The governor praised the creation of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), a school voucher plan he backed early last year. The plan will give parents public money to spend on private education and related expenses. The House approved the ESA plan last April by a single vote, leading to questions about how then-Speaker Glen Casada managed the vote and whether he made any illegal promises to secure the necessary votes. Casada has said he didn't. Subsequently, the Lee administration changed its estimates of how much the program would cost, and fast-tracked it to begin this fall instead of the planned autumn 2021 launch. Lee made an oblique reference to the ESA turmoil in Monday night's remarks, saying "Disruption is hard and sometimes controversial."

There was no visible evidence of recent tensions between legislative leaders and the governor's office over Lee's decision to continue participating in a federal refugee resettlement program. Last December, House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Senate Speaker Randy McNally took issue with the governor's decision and the fact that they weren't consulted during the consideration process. Monday night, Sexton and McNally sat on the House rostrum behind Lee and joined their fellow lawmakers in applauding the governor's proposals.

Continuing a custom Lee began in 2019, the governor will spend some time repeating his vision for audiences in two of Tennessee's three grand divisions. That tour begins with an address in Johnson City Thursday evening.