In his fifth State of the State address, Gov. Bill Lee on Monday promised to cut taxes, transform transportation and expand insurance coverage to thousands of Tennessee parents and children.
“Tennessee is leading. The question is, will we lead in a way that lasts — in a way that our grandchildren areequipped and inspired to pick up where we left off?” Lee said. “I believe we can, and I look forward to pursuing that with all of you, this year and three more after that.”
Lee addressed a joint session of the 113th Tennessee General Assembly at the state Capitol, signaling his plans for his second term in office — including a three-month grocery tax break, teacher raises, more technical college funding and workforce development support.
But he also looked back to his first term, again proposing a paid family leave program for state employees, an effort that failed after he proposed it during his 2020 State of the State address. Details of the plan are not yet available, though budget documents indicate it is proposed as a tax credit.
“This is not a mandate on businesses. I believe every business owner should make decisions that are in thebest interest of their employees,” Lee said. “A reasonable paid leave program will help us retain the best and brightest and help those who help our state, resulting in stronger families across Tennessee.”
A major theme of Lee’s address was his focus on families, including more support new mothers, foster care, the embattled Department of Children’s Services and, more controversially, crisis pregnancy centers.
Lee is staunchly anti-abortion and supports the state’s strict ban, even as some legislative Republicans are pursuing legal exceptions to the law. But the governor also has said the state must do more to support families after children are born. He said in his address the state had a “moral obligation” to support them.
As Lee referenced last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, he was interrupted by members of the public sitting in the House gallery. They loudly decried the governor’s abortion and healthcare policies.
“Civility is not a weakness,” Lee remarked, veering away from his prepared remarks and prompting a standing ovation and loud applause from lawmakers and administration officials on the chamber floor, drowning out the gallery.
“This is not a matter of politics. This is about human dignity,” Lee said, returning to his speech. “We can have a healthy debate about the policy specifics, but we can also agree that America is rooted in a commitment to human dignity,” Lee said. “I’m talking about the dignity of the expecting mother working multiple jobs to make ends meet, the dignity of a baby born three months too early, the dignity of a father living with a disability, and the dignity of a family in crisis.”
The fall of the Roe precedent cleared the way for Tennessee to implement its no-exception abortion ban, under which a doctor could be charged with a felony for performing any abortion in the state, even one to save the life of a pregnant patient.
The issue has been one Democrats have criticized Lee and Republicans on ever since. A group of medical professional protested the state’s policies outside the House chamber on Monday night, holding signs with phrases such as, “Keep the government out of the exam room.”
“It’s not civil to force 10-year-olds to carry a pregnancy,” Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, replied on social media as Lee’s speech remained underway. “Dissent is not incivility.”
TennCare funding for expanded postpartum coverage
In his budget proposal released Monday night, Lee called for raising TennCare eligibility for mothers and parents, in addition to earmarking $4.6 million to extend a program offering 12 months of postpartum coverage.
Lee also hopes to cover the cost of diapers for the first two year’s of a baby’s life for mothers on TennCare, which he said would be the first program of its kind in the nation.
Tennessee Republicans have for years declined to expand Medicaid, which healthcare leaders and Democrats have continually called for ever since the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010. Democrats and other critics continue to say the Lee administration could do more by accepting additional federal funding.
“We should expand TennCare, and we should do it now,” House Minority Leader Karen Camper, D-Memphis, said in a speech ahead of Lee’s address. “Every person who works should have health coverage, especially when it’s not offered to them through their job.”
Lee defended the decision to work through a Medicaid waiver program, which he said generated healthcare savings that can now go to coverage expansion.
“We have the opportunity — together — to expand more services, reach more families in need, and improve ruralhealth care access across our state,” Lee said. “Despite enormous criticism from those who said we couldn’t or wouldn’t, we are going to do exactly what we said we would do when we pursued this shared savings waiver — expand services for the most vulnerable and provide those services to even more Tennesseans. And now that day has come.”
In his budget, Lee allocated $100 million for a grant fund to benefit crisis pregnancy centers, anti-abortion organizations that Lee has long supported and been actively involved in. The centers often offer pregnancy tests but are not licensed or regulated medical clinics.
Lee earmarked $10 million for a grant program to support foster and adoption nonprofits in the state, as the state faces a severe children’s services crisis. The embattled Department of Children’s Services will get an additional $190 million in the budget.
Infrastructure infusion key part of budget
Lee proposed a $55.6-billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which is a decrease in overall spending compared to last year.
The state’s budget decreased $600 million as money from federal pandemic recovery efforts has dried up. Tennessee’s sales tax revenue grew by 11%, allowing it to increase direct state spending by $3.1 billion compared to last year.
Since his reelection last fall, Lee signaled infrastructure and transportation issues would play a major role in his second term. On Monday, the governor pointed to a $26-billion backlog of infrastructure projects in the state.
“Simply put, we are way behind, and we have to change the way we fund and build our roads and bridges,” Lee said. “We know that we have to tackle big, urban projects, but if we don’t change the strategy, we all know who would end up paying the price – our rural communities.”
Lee again said he’d look to “choice lanes,” a term widely acknowledged as toll roads, something Lee bit back at Monday night in his speech.
“To alleviate urban congestion in our major cities and widen rural interstates across the state, we’re proposing an additional $3 billion to build roads in all three Grand Divisions,” Lee said. “With that, we are also proposing another $300 million into our local highway program, so that local communities can build and maintain the roads they need. And here’s the bottom line – there is a great cost to doing nothing.”
Democrats respond, see common ground but push for change
Camper said Democrats are ready to work with Lee on “equitable” infrastructure projects across the state, but she was careful to note Tennessee is “flush with cash” for infrastructure needs due to President Joe Biden.
Tennessee is expected to receive a $1.2 billion infusion from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, with about two-thirds going toward bridge projects and one-third toward highway infrastructure.
“All of which, Gov. Lee and the supermajority have accepted,” Camper said in a “prebuttal” speech on Saturday. “So now I am calling on Gov. Lee and the supermajority to accept more federal funding.”
“If they are willing to accept billions of dollars to improve our drive to work, they should have no problem accepting money to improve our healthcare,” Camper said.
Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, echoed that sentiment. She praised proposals for small business owners and children, for example, but said the investments were long overdue.
Lee pushes new conservation efforts
As he signaled in his inaugural address last month, Lee has set his sights on some conservation and environmental efforts in the next budget.
Lee’s proposed budget includes $82 million to fast-track restore former industrial sites, or brownfields. Lee on Monday said he’ll propose legislation to revitalization
It also includes funds for four new state parks, two new park lodges and expansion of three state natural areas.
“Our state parks are a jewel, and they’ll only be around for the future if we invest in them today,” Lee said.
Legislative agenda unveiled
In his Monday speech, Lee largely sidestepped ideological culture war issues the General Assembly’s Republican supermajority has focused on in several of its early, high-profile bills.
The governor earmarked $125 million for teacher pay raises in the upcoming budget, and said his administration would pursue legislation for continual teacher raises.
“When I came into office, the minimum pay for teachers was set at $35,000. We are proposing legislation that, if it passes, will increase the minimum teacher pay, by the time I leave office, to $50,000,” Lee said, receiving raucous applause and cheers from the chamber.
“I’m glad y’all like that” Lee ad libbed. “I do, too.”
Another $1 billion in Lee’s budget proposal has been earmarked toward technical colleges in the state, with Lee’s plan to expand 16 existing technical colleges, replace seven facilities and build six new colleges.