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In this July 1, 2020, file photo, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee answers questions during a news conference in Nashville, Tenn. Lee on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020, would not say whether he would be vaccinated against COVID-19 when a vaccine becomes available. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Tuesday he's looking to include "meaningful" teacher pay raises in next year's budget despite facing financial crunches brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lee had originally proposed funneling an additional $117 million to K-12 teacher salaries earlier this year before the virus outbreak began rippling across the state. If approved, the starting minimum annual salary for teachers would have increased from $36,000 to $40,000 over the next two years.

Yet months later, Lee was forced to strip the teacher funding boost, as well as many other budget initiatives, as officials braced for funding shortfalls.

However, Tennessee's revenues have come in slightly higher than originally projected over the past three months. This has allowed Lee's administration to remain slightly optimistic that they'll be able to fund some new measures rather than have to dip into rainy day funds.

"We certainly hope there will be an opportunity for meaningful teacher pay increases," Lee told reporters on Tuesday, calling it an "important" priority while he considers the 2021-22 fiscal year spending plan.

Lee added that Tennessee's teachers have "done a remarkable job this year" as they navigate an already tough job on top of a pandemic.

The Republican also didn't rule out allocating funding for his school voucher program, which is currently blocked from being implemented due to an ongoing legal challenge questioning the constitutionality of the proposal. So far, courts have ruled against Lee's administration.

Known as education savings accounts, the program allows eligible families to use more than $7,000 in state tax dollars to pay for private school tuition. It was a program championed by Lee in 2019 during his first legislative session and it just narrowly passed the GOP-dominant Statehouse.

Once passed, the law was quickly challenged by plaintiffs ranging from Nashville and Shelby County — which includes Memphis — and parents opposed to education savings accounts. They argue Lee and Republican lawmakers did not receive local consent when drawing legislation affecting local communities, which is required under Tennessee's constitution.

"The funding for (education savings accounts) was taken out of this current year's budget because it was obviously not going to be implemented this year," Lee said. "But I certainly will continue to — pending the outcome of the court — pursue choices for parents and students."

Lee added that he believed the program would have been useful for parents who wanted more school choices during this school year as districts across the state weighed whether to remain open or move to virtual learning.

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