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Staff Photo By Troy Stolt / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks during an October 2020 visit to Cleveland High School.

In a political era where leading Democrats, including the president of the United States and the Senate majority leader, alter long-held positions because they no longer suit the base of their party, it is refreshing to have a governor in Tennessee who is not afraid to be the conservative he told voters he was when he ran for the office in 2018.

Gov. Bill Lee, in a telephone conversation Thursday, noted Tennessee's financial strength when other states are desperate for bailout money in the recently passed COVID relief bill; said the state would likely exceed its goal of vaccinating everyone aged 17 and up who wants a vaccine by May 1; defended his support for a constitutional carry gun bill; asserted criminal justice reform measures currently being considered in the General Assembly would help reduce recidivism; and didn't back down on his statement that transgender athletes would ruin women's sports.

* The governor raised some eyebrows last week when, while speaking at a forum hosted by the Beacon Center and the Millennial Debt Foundation, he said Tennessee "didn't need" the stimulus money states were allotted in the COVID relief bill.

"Conceptually, I guess you could refuse it," he said, referring to the $35 billion that will come the state's way in various forms, "but the issue is not whether you accept it." Giving money to states that have not been financially responsible is "not good for America."

Tennessee is one of only seven states that have seen positive economic growth since pandemic shutdowns in April 2020.

Lee said that happened because we "managed our lives and our livelihoods," meaning "we considered the health aspect and the economic challenges." The state's fiscal 2022 budget even calls for making a sizable addition to its rainy-day fund.

Nevertheless, Lee said, "certainly we're going to take the money and be good stewards of it."

However, he said, Democrats who crafted the bill changed the way in which federal dollars are distributed. Previous relief bills were allotted based on population. The most recent bill is being doled out based on employment rates, costing Tennessee — according to Lee's office — an extra $164 million.

* Lee also acknowledged what we had long guessed — that distribution of vaccine in the state is held up only by federal government supply, and the state is "rarely [notified] more than a week in advance."

The state's vaccination plan, he said, was judged by the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as "one of the best in the country."

Lee said he hopes to announce soon plans that will allow Tennessee to exceed the aforementioned May 1 goal of vaccinating all adults who want to be vaccinated.

* The governor, who frequently mentioned during the 2018 campaign his long-term volunteer experience with a prisoner re-entry program, said two bills making their way through the legislature "are one of the most important things I am doing."

One involves alternatives to incarceration for some nonviolent offenders, and the other deals with changes to the re-entry program involving support services.

Of the first, Lee said some argue the bill is "soft on crime, but it's not that at all." Its outcomes are "evidence-based," he said, and it's "tough but smart."

Of the second, based on his experience but more importantly on the input of stakeholders, he could testify to the results. "I know this stuff works," he said.

Both bills are endorsed by the American Conservative Union, Lee said.

* Meanwhile, he said he proposed the constitutional, or permitless, carry bill. It doesn't change who or where a gun can be carried but says those legally qualified to own a gun would no longer need a permit to carry it either concealed or openly.

Seventeen other states already operate under constitutional carry.

Such a bill does away with the requirement of firearms safety training, and that is a concern to us. But statistics show the vast majority of shootings are not done by those who legally own guns but by individuals who illegally obtain them or who otherwise are not permitted to have them.

* Lee said he has not reviewed what is in the bills involving transgenders using restrooms different from their biological gender or transgenders born male playing on women's sports teams. And few cases involving the aspects of either bill have come to light in the state

"I'll be interested in what goes out [in the final bills]," he said.

Nevertheless, Lee repeated he "believes transgender athletes will destroy women's sports."

A year ago this week, the state legislature was trying to quickly pass a fiscal 2021 budget in the wake of the rapidly spreading coronavirus. No one knew how the state and its residents would fare. With prudent financial management and the dual concerns for the health of its citizens and their businesses, the state has weathered the storm better than most.

Now it also can address other concerns.

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