NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is reaching out to law enforcement officers from New York City to California who are bristling over COVID-19 vaccination mandates, saying they are welcome to come work for the Tennessee Highway Patrol, regardless of their vaccine status.
"We want you to join the Tennessee Highway Patrol," the Republican governor says in a video posted to YouTube on Wednesday. "Our force is one of the most professional in the country. And we won't get between you and your doctor."
Lee's offer, which he announced with state Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Jeff Long, includes help covering moving costs for out-of-state police and sheriff's deputies wishing to avoid strict COVID-19 policies and who might consider relocating to the Volunteer State.
The governor also touted the state's low cost of living, no income tax and "competitive" state benefits for law enforcement officers if they come work for the Tennessee Highway Patrol.
"In Tennessee, you will be given our full support and respect," Lee pledged. "And I'll work to make sure your freedoms are protected. We stand with our law enforcement, and we'll stand with you, too."
Lee's offer comes amid continuing controversies in New York City and California over COVID-19 vaccination mandates for personnel in law enforcement and other areas of government. It also follows Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' effort to capitalize on the controversy. DeSantis said he would seek funding to offer $5,000 bonuses to disgruntled police officers from New York City and California if they relocated to Florida to work in law enforcement.
It also comes following a legislative session during which the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed bills seeking to block public- and private-sector mask and vaccine mandates. Lee signed all but one. Prohibitions on requiring vaccinations do not include companies or entities with federal contracts that could be jeopardized or, in the case of medical providers, hospitals and other providers whose work includes Medicare and Medicaid.
On Twitter, Tennessee Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, criticized Lee for jumping on the bandwagon.
"Just when I think @GovBillLee won't/can't stoop any lower to cater to the fringe right," Clemmons tweeted. "This is a bad idea and waste of Tennessee taxpayer money for so many reasons."
State Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, praised Lee's effort in his tweet.
"He should [make the offer] because police departments across Tennessee have been short of officers since before COVID-19," Niceley wrote. "If we can attract qualified officers we save on training costs."
Some on social media suggested Lee's entreaty was a stretch, given six-figure salaries paid to some law enforcement personnel in New York and California.
The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security's website states that trooper cadets entering the agency's training academy begin at $3,345 per month.
Upon successful completion, a trooper's salary rises to $3,690 a month or $44,280 a year.
With "regular" pay increases, the department's website says, a trooper "can earn $65,808 per year after 10 years of service, under the current pay structure."
The Lee video does not make clear how the governor plans to avoid President Joe Biden's proposed safety and health requirement that all employers of 100 or more workers require vaccines or weekly testing to fight the spread of COVID-19, starting Jan. 4.
The order is on hold pending a court case, and Tennessee opposes it, but Lee's implied promise not to require vaccines for troopers is not necessarily one Tennessee will be able to keep, depending on the outcome of legal challenges.
Lee's office did not respond to questions about the issue.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol has 987 commissioned officers, according to the Senate and House Finance Committee. Of that number, 783 are classified as "road troopers," with another 23 in administrative posts and 204 in "miscellaneous operations" involving other departmental functions.
Efforts to obtain additional information from Safety and Homeland Security officials in areas ranging from numbers of actually filled Highway Patrol positions to whether personnel are subject to vaccination requirements for other diseases were unsuccessful. Department officials are asking Lee for funding to add 25 new troopers.
According to New York City government's website, the starting salary for officers is $42,500 a year. After five and a half years, that rises to $85,292 annually.
The NYC government website states that with inclusion of holiday pay, longevity pay, uniform allowance, night differential and overtime, a police officer can "potentially" earn more than $100,000 a year.
New York City police officers also have an annuity fund, deferred compensation plans such as a 401K and IRA, optional retirement at one-half of salary after 22 years of service and an annual $12,000 variable supplement fund upon retirement.
The Gothamist, a New York City-focused online news site, reported that as of Nov. 12, city figures showed 6,170 NYPD employees — 11% of its 52,100 employees as of October — had cited religious or medical reasons for not wanting to be vaccinated. They are being allowed to continue working until their application is approved or declined. In the meantime, they must submit to a weekly COVID-19 test, the Gothamist reported.
"There are many highly skilled law enforcement personnel who want to work in a state that doesn't get in the middle of personal health decisions yet also provides for a wonderful quality of life," Lee said in a statement. "As we've ramped up efforts to get more state troopers on the road, we want these men and women to consider Tennessee, and we will assist with their relocation expenses."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher21.
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