Gov. Lee says Tennessee ‘leading the nation’ as he is sworn in for second term

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, right, is sworn in by Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Page, left, in the Legislative Plaza Saturday, Jan.21, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/John Amis)
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, right, is sworn in by Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Page, left, in the Legislative Plaza Saturday, Jan.21, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/John Amis)

NASHVILLE -- Declaring Tennessee the greatest state in the country, Gov. Bill Lee said Saturday the state is leading the nation in areas ranging from economic development and low taxes to his new education funding formula as the Republican was sworn into office for his second and final term.

"Thank you, not only for being here, but for who you are and what you do to make this the greatest state in the greatest country in the world," the 63-year-old Republican businessman said as he addressed a crowd of more than 1,500 people, including lawmakers, dignitaries and others on Legislative Plaza with the state Capitol and a blue sky as a backdrop. "Tennessee reminds people in this country that America hasn't lost her way."

Lee used the address to review strides the state has taken during his first term, challenges both public and personal, as well as to look ahead.

"We need a transportation strategy and an energy strategy designed for one of the fastest growing states in America," the governor said, alluding to his planned effort to boost road spending as well as persuade the GOP-dominated General Assembly to authorize public partnerships with private companies to build and operate new dedicated interstate lanes that people can pay to drive on.

The lanes would be built in highly congested areas in the state's major cities, enabling Lee and lawmakers to divert more fuel-tax dollars to rural areas.

"We can disagree and stand firm for our beliefs and our principles, but we should never forget the dignity of the other human being," Lee said. "We should never believe differences are a platform for demonization, or that one man has any greater value than another.

"Civility is not a weakness," Lee added at another point. "In fact, it has been and it should always be the American Way. And I know it can be the way in Tennessee."

During his address, the governor spoke several times of his wife, Maria, who is battling lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, which fights germs. She stood beside him on the Legislative Plaza platform.

"These last few months have been hard on our family, but God is faithful," he said. "Maria and I have cherished your prayers for healing.

"We are grateful for everyone who has supported us, and I'm grateful she's here today," he said. "While Maria and I are in a time of struggle, we know that we are not alone in these hardships."

The governor then pivoted from his wife to the state.

"The last four years have brought unexpected challenges to many of us in this state -- floods, wildfires, a pandemic, tornadoes, even a bombing on Christmas morning -- in addition to personal challenges you could be facing right now that your fellow Tennesseans don't even know about," Lee said.

"It's a reminder, once again, that in this life there are only a few things that really matter, and Maria and I want our lives to be about those things.

'That's why I ran for Governor, twice now, and that thought's been with me every day these last four years," Lee said. "The halfway point of two terms in office has caused me to reflect even more on what matters."

Lee touted winning approval first from the Trump administration and later from the Biden administration for what he described as "our innovative Medicaid waiver," giving the state more flexibility in how it operates the state and federally funded program for the poor and insured. That's given more access to dental and maternal care with Tennesseans who have disabilities able to "live with the dignity that they deserve," he said.

But Democrats and health care advocates say Tennessee continues to ignore more than 250,000 low-income adults because the state has refused to extend health coverage to them under the federal Affordable Care Act. Lee's predecessor, Republican Bill Haslam, tried but was rebuffed by his fellow Republicans in the legislature.

Lee has not sought to push the Medicaid issue and instead sought and received permission for more flexibility and cost-savings and sharing pr0visions with the federal government after being directed to do so by GOP leaders to seek more flexibility.

The governor also said, "We need to protect children in our custody and in our state with a better foster care and adoption process."

While the governor didn't delve into details, his comments come amid turmoil within the Department of Children's Services and a number of children the agency cares for.

Children have been housed in state offices and hospitals and both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have condemned problems and demanded the governor put things right.

Referring to his plans and goals in multiple areas across state government, Lee said, "We need to do these things and many more, but we can never abandon the standard of fiscal responsibility that makes our success possible."


At the event, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican who was among the lawmakers who escorted the governor to the stage, said the inauguration was "very low key, very nice, very to the point, very humble. Which is always good to have somebody in that position be humble."

On Twitter, Democratic Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville offered a different view of where he sees the state.

"Tennessee is 'leading the nation' in hospital closures, medical debt, foster care instability, opiate overdoses, juvenile detention, childhood obesity and violent crime. There's plenty of work for @GovBillLee in his second term if he decides to take on these real problems."

Also at the inauguration ceremony, Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said of the governor's speech, "It makes me hopeful that there's going to be an effort to find ways to work together in the interest of our citizens. I'm sure there are going to be some disagreements. But we can disagree without being disagreeable, and I'm looking forward to working with him."

Hakeem, Democrats and some Republicans are working this year to alter aspects of Tennessee's total ban on abortions, which makes all abortions illegal in the state with doctors subject to prosecution. The law allows a doctor criminally charged with performing the procedure an opportunity to present a legal defense in court that the procedure was necessary to save the life of the mother -- but the law places the burden of proof on the doctor, not the prosecutor, unlike most criminal proceedings.

At the inauguration, Rep. Greg Vital, R-Georgetown, had a sunny view of the day.

"I think the morning started out with one of the most impressive openings at the Ryman [auditorium]" where Lee earlier Saturday morning hosted an inaugural worship service. "I think our service there set the whole tone for the entire day."

He thanked the governor and added, "I'm very optimistic about the next four years. We kind of know that infrastructure and growth are going to be a major focus."

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