NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Monday unveiled a $41.8 billion budget proposal with new spending and policy priorities while also touting his administration's health and economic responses to the coronavirus pandemic and praising Tennesseans for their resiliency.
The governor said in his third State of the State address that even as "we mourn the more than 10,000 Tennesseans" who have died so far from COVID-19, Tennesseans "will know tonight that tragedy has no hold on who we are or where we are headed. Tragedy will not define us and will not rob us of the opportunity that 2021 holds."
In addition to the pandemic, Lee cited a year that included "devastating tornadoes, flooding, violence, unrest, economic collapse, a downtown [Nashville] explosion and witnessing our nation undergo painful turmoil at the highest levels of government."
His fellow Republicans, who are a majority of members in the General Assembly, cheered repeatedly during his speech, which was moved from the traditional House chamber site inside the state Capitol to the nearby War Memorial Auditorium because of COVID-19 concerns regarding social distancing.
Lee's recommended budget for the budget year that will start July 1 represents a 3.2% increase over current spending. About a third of Tennessee's budget depends on federal funding.
It includes an additional $120.1 million in pay increases for K-12 teachers and education personnel.
That's part of an estimated $346.6 million K-12 increase, which includes a $70.5 million boost for the state's basic education funding formula as well as $110 million for literacy initiatives approved last month by legislators. Another $24 million goes to a charter school facility fund.
The governor's proposal is already coming under fire. Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown, a Grundy County High School teacher, called the amount of funding for traditional public schools "pitiful."
Noting that Tennessee has about one million students in public schools, Brown said that amounts to "about $200 a student which amounts to about a dollar a day."
State revenues, meanwhile, have far outperformed officials' expectations and Lee is proposing to use some $1.33 billion of that from the past year and a half for three infrastructure programs.
One proposes using $931.23 million for improvements and maintenance for more than 150 state and higher education buildings. A second is $200 million in another fund for counties and municipalities to use for capital maintenance, road projects, new school construction or renovations and more.
A third program, $200 million, is to continue the state's effort to expand broadband internet into rural areas. It's part of some $472.6 million in new funding Lee is proposing for business and rural development.
Overview of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee's Fiscal Year 2022 budgetView
Among other initiatives proposed by Lee is $1.2 million to create a new 11-person, Chattanooga-based Tennessee Emergency Management Agency office to serve Southeast Tennessee.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said that because the state is flush with non-recurring revenue, "the governor is able to propose a number of one-time projects including the TEMA project.
"We are playing it safe on the recurring [revenue] side," Watson said. "But, most importantly, the budget is structurally balanced 2 years ahead of schedule."
He said although there "is still much to be discussed" on Lee's proposed spending plan, "we are in a good starting place" as lawmakers begin digging into it.
During his speech, Lee, who has chosen not to implement a statewide mask mandate in response to the coronavirus, touted his efforts on the outbreak, saying that "despite the challenges associated with COVID-19, we have managed these with very limited restrictions on Tennessee businesses and citizens, and when they have been required they were targeted and temporary."
Lee has delegated the decisions on mask mandates to counties, which can implement local mandates. The governor made no mention of the criticism he has received for taking that step.
His budget includes $150 million for COVID-19 relief efforts.
The governor also plans to renew his push for a so-called "constitutional carry" bill that would allow most Tennesseans 21 and older to carry firearms openly or concealed without undergoing a criminal background check or training. That will cost $17.7 million because it boosts criminal penalties for gun-related crimes with more people projected to be jailed.
The governor, who is seeking reelection next year to a second term, also rattled a rhetorical saber at President Joe Biden, a Democrat.
"With elections behind us, we will watch with patriotic skepticism to see if politicians in Washington try to force more government on the states than the Tenth Amendment allows," Lee said. "Why? Because Tennessee knows what we need a lot better than the federal government."
The Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that the federal government has only the powers given to it in the Constitution. Other governmental powers belong to the states or the people.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.