Tennessee governor takes issue with $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief as unneeded

Lee criticizes new formula that gives less to Tennessee

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Gov. Bill Lee speaks during the 2020 Atlas Cross Sport reveal at the Volkswagen Assembly Plant in 2019.

NASHVILLE - Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday criticized the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, signed into law earlier in the day by President Joe Biden, with the Republican governor saying the country "didn't need it."

The governor is also objecting to a distribution formula change that will result in $160 million less aid for Tennessee than the distribution model used in prior coronavirus and economic relief packages that have been approved.

"We are about to get a $2 trillion federal package that in my view the country doesn't need," Lee said. "That won't be rolled back, right? So that's going to institute a whole level of new financial input from the federal government and all the strings that come attached to that."

Lee's remarks came at an event sponsored by the Beacon Center, Americans for Prosperity-Tennessee and the Millennial Debt Foundation headed by Weston Wamp of Chattanooga.

Also appearing were two former Tennessee governors, Republican Bill Haslam and Democrat Phil Bredesen. Wamp is heading an ongoing "Stewardship Series" on focusing on the national debt and other issues.

In response to questions posed by Wamp, the son of former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp and who himself ran twice for Congress, Lee surveyed the impact of the coronavirus and economic downturns on both the state and individuals.

"We really saw an enormous growth of government in some ways at the expense of the individual across the country," Lee said. "That's very concerning to me. There have been times in my interaction with the federal government where there was a real clear understanding that states need to do what states need to do.

"But," Lee said, "increasingly, it's becoming 'here's what we are going to do.' And without as much input from the states as we had before this pandemic began or even in the beginning, the first part of it."

Biden, a Democrat, defeated Republican President Donald Trump and succeeded Trump on Jan. 20. Trump successfully pushed his own coronavirus and economic relief legislation.

Lee, who is expected to seek election to a second term in 2022, criticized the change the just-signed law makes to the distribution formula change for states. Instead of funding being based on a state's population, the new formula awards funding based on unemployment, he said.

Because Tennessee has done well in recovering from the initial economic downturn, Lee said, the state is getting less than it would have under the old formula.

Wamp, meanwhile, cited his concerns about the federal government's ballooning debt and the impact of younger Americans.

Earlier, Haslam, who in addition to serving as governor was previously Knoxville's mayor, noted he came into office in 2011 as the state was still grappling with the impact of the country's "Great Recession," which came on Bredesen's watch. The state had received federal aid as well as a half billion dollars for K-12 education under the Obama administration's "Race to the Top" for education.

Noting the billions coming to Tennessee and other states under the latest package, Haslam said, "I hope most of that gets spent in a thoughtful way." Haslam also voiced concerns, noting "it will be a major job to have good standards over the funds coming to us."

Bredesen noted federal deficits used to be a point of concern "the assumption is now that you can have trillion-dollar deficits." That's "unfortunate and very hurtful," he said.

In addition to $1,400 stimulus checks going out to many Americans, the latest relief package provides $350 billion to help states, counties, cities and tribal governments cover increased expenditures, replenish lost revenue and mitigate economic harm from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of that, $195.3 billion is going to states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Of that, $25.5 billion would be equally divided to provide each state a minimum of $500 million. The other $169 billion will be allocated based on the states' share of unemployed workers over a three-month period, from October-December 2020.

The Lee administration did not respond to a reporter's request on the amount of Tennessee's state share.

However, according to NCSL estimates, it would be $3.8 billion. The state's 95 counties would see an estimated $1.32 billion. A category labeled "Metro Cities" is estimated at $513 million, according to NCSL.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.