Tennessee Gov. Lee unveils $52.6 billion budget, presses for K-12 formula revamp in State of the State

Bill Lee delivers his State of the State Address in the House Chamber of the Capitol building in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 31, 2022. (ANDREW NELLES/THE TENNESSEAN)

NASHVILLE - Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Monday proposed a $52.6 billion spending plan for the coming budget year during his annual State of the State Address in which the Republican also urged lawmakers to pass his proposed overhaul of the state's $5.6 billion school funding formula along with $1 billion more to pay for it.

At the same time, the Republican governor is proposing to plow billions of dollars in funds from state tax surpluses as well as billions more from federal programs into areas ranging from roads to colleges and schools.

Lee devoted special attention to his proposal to revamp the state's 30-year-old funding formula for K-12 education.

"Time and time again, we have heard the same message," Lee told the General Assembly, dominated by GOP lawmakers. "We need a smarter, more transparent, accountable education funding formula, and the time is now."

Still, in a nod to hesitant GOP leaders, the governor is not seeking to scrap the existing formula immediately. Instead, he is putting the money into his proposed budget with hopes lawmakers will approve his plan this year and he would be able to implement it in 2024.

Lee says the current education funding formula is too focused on a "systems-based" formula involving categories of need. He favors what he's branded as a "student-based" formula in which dollars follow the student. He is recommending the state provide $750 million in new recurring funding for the plan.

While the new plan is in development, the governor is proposing to increase funding for public K-12 educator and staff salaries by $125 million, and he wants to put $550 million into one-time career and technical education grants and another $200 million to relocate 11 schools across the state which are located in flood plains.

Among the flood-prone schools is Clifton Hills Elementary School in Chattanooga, located at 1815 E. 32nd St.

Lee’s budget

In addition to the K-12 education funding push, here are other priorities in Gov. Bill Lee’s budget recommendations for his proposed fiscal year 2022-2023 budget:— Transportation and Infrastructure: $626.5 million.— Rainy Day Fund and Liability reduction: $921.7 million.— Health and Social Services: $545 million.— Law and Safety: $601.6 million.— Higher Education, Career Technical Education: $1.974 billion.

The spending comes with Tennessee awash in billions of dollars as a result of soaring revenues as well as billions of dollars from federal stimulus programs.

And it's providing Lee and state lawmakers a rare opportunity to make huge investments across state government.

The budget includes $265 million to replace the Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute in Chattanooga. But the money won't be coming this year as Lee, area state legislators and others seek to determine whether the revamped psychiatric hospital should remain on the history-rich Moccasin Bend or be relocated elsewhere.

Lee is also using stimulus funds to double down on new investments in roads and infrastructure in areas ranging from broadband to water and sewer projects.

The governor also proposed legislation that he says will ensure parents know what materials are available to students in their libraries.

"While we are improving our funding strategy, we also need to empower parents with a candid look into not only how their children are learning but what they are learning. The vast majority of parents believe they should be allowed to see books, curriculum and other items used in the classroom. That's how I felt about my own kids, and I stand with those parents today. We are proposing a new law that will ensure parents know what materials are available to students in their libraries."

The would-be law also creates "greater accountability at the local level so parents are empowered to make sure content is age-appropriate."

Another proposal is a bill to make computer science and coding available to every high school student in Tennessee.

Lee pitched Tennessee as a unique place among states in his address. The governor did the same in a campaign-style video he posted earlier in the day online.

"Tennessee stands as a beacon to the rest of the country for how we can change lives when we control the size of government, prioritize efficiency and make smart and responsible investments. I am proud to propose a budget and 'America at Its Best' policies that reinforce freedom, innovation, exceptionalism and optimism," Lee said.

In pushing "Tennessee: America at Its Best," Lee is adopting a motto rarely invoked these days but which was adopted in 1965 by Tennessee legislators. He called it "our north star."

"If we are to embody 'America at Its Best,' that starts with acknowledging that it is our Creator who endows us with freedom, and the government merely maintains that freedom," Lee told lawmakers convened in the House chamber, many of whom cheered.

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