Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivered his third State of the State address and presented budget and legislative priorities to a joint session of the General Assembly on Monday evening.
In addition to outlining budget and legislative priorities, the governor provided an accounting of Tennessee's COVID-19 response and continued economic recovery, according to a press release from the governor's office.
Gov. Lee's remarks as prepared for delivery are below:
Thank you very much.
Lieutenant Governor McNally, Speaker Sexton, Speaker Pro Tem Haile, Speaker Pro Tem Marsh, Members of the 112th General Assembly, Justices, Constitutional Officers, fellow Tennesseans:
I would also like to acknowledge the First Lady who is in the audience.
Maria serves our state with genuine compassion and is my partner in every aspect of this role.
I love you and am proud that you are ours.
I also share my gratitude to members of my Cabinet and staff who are here tonight.
Each of these men and women have committed to lives of service and honor.
They are battle-tested and I am proud of their work and their friendship.
Members of the General Assembly, let me say that it's good to be here in person.
Last year, we stood together at the starting line of 2020 ready for a challenge and even more ready to leave our mark on what was sure to be a historic year for our state.
The events that would take place just a few weeks after, would set the tone for our year.
An unimaginable one for us that included the rise of a global pandemic, devastating tornadoes, flooding, violence, unrest, economic collapse, a downtown explosion and witnessing our nation undergo painful turmoil at the highest levels of government.
There have been heartbreaking losses.
We mourn the more than 10,000 Tennesseans we have lost in those deadly events this year.
In many respects, what was optimism has become a tempered feeling of resolve, and perhaps even cautiousness about what lies ahead in 2021 as we move forward but work to make sense of it all.
Scripture has a lot to say about that crossroads and what to do on the heels of suffering.
Where do we find the promise in this season?
The promise is found in perseverance, which produces character that leads to hope.
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 fact, this year holds its own unique place for our state as we celebrate 225 years of statehood.
Since 1796, our state has been the portrait of perseverance, character and hope because of everyday heroes.
Ordinary Tennesseans are more than constituents - they are the strength of our state and the lifeblood of our country.
From early settlers, the farmers and factory workers, teachers and tradesmen, doctors and pastors.
We will celebrate that since 1796 the ordinary has made us extraordinary and remember that generations before us have not just weathered but excelled in the cycle of perseverance, character and hope.
I will once again travel to all 95 counties to reach the unsung people and places that make our state who she is.
We will do events in every county in Tennessee and to celebrate the 225th anniversary I hope every Tennessean can join us at one of them.
We will kick off that yearlong celebration in June, but in the meantime we have a lot of work to do.
Starting with acknowledging this place in time and where we are with COVID.
It will soon be part of our 225 year history and I want you to know where our response stands and how Tennessee can beat this thing once and for all.
Across the world this pandemic has exposed that when the government feels unprepared, it's a natural temptation to think growing the size of government and reaching for the nearest mandate will save everything.
But not in Tennessee.
The worldwide data on government's success is mixed, but Tennessee's approach has been consistent: maintain local control whenever possible, rely on people more than the government, and keep a primary focus on what we can directly impact.
We chose a prudent structure in our Unified-Command Group that merged the role of public health, the National Guard and our emergency management response.
We built a strong infrastructure to deliver tests and vaccines directly into communities and we worked in lock step with our hospital partners.
One of our first decisions was to double down on testing capacity, and we were consistently one of the early testing leaders across the country.
We were one of the first to make free testing available to every resident, regardless of symptoms and regardless of insurance status.
We were the first to purchase masks for every citizen.
As we watched disastrous outcomes at nursing homes in other states, we were one of the first states to test every nursing home resident and staff member well ahead of the federal requirement.
This decision paid off, as Tennessee has had a much lower fatality rate than the country as a whole in long term care facilities.
And that fatality rate is not just a statistic - it equates to hundreds of lives saved thanks to the swift actions of state and local government and the nursing homes and long term care facilities across our state.
Protecting the vulnerable has enabled us to continue the most critical functions of society, including educating our kids.
I'm proud of our schools, and our collective decision to follow the science when it comes to getting our kids back in the classroom.
As of today, 146 of our 147 districts have an in-person option for students - and that choice is so critical for our kids.
We were the first state to send monthly deliveries of PPE to teachers and staff.
Most importantly of all, two months after the commencement of vaccine distribution in America, Tennessee is leading again.
We have consistently been in the top ten for vaccine distribution nationally and we expect that to continue in the weeks and months ahead.
Good news doesn't always get noticed, but our vaccine distribution plan is recognized by the Former CDC Director Redfield the most medically sound and practical plan in the country.
We're getting shots in the arms of the Tennesseans who need it most.
Despite the challenges associated with COVID-19, we have managed these with very limited restrictions on Tennessee business and citizens, and when they have been required they were targeted and temporary.
You may remember that the last time I addressed Tennesseans was the week before Christmas.
A post-Thanksgiving surge threatened to push our hospitals over the brink, and at that time, Tennessee had a greater number of new COVID cases per capita than anywhere in the world.
There was more pressure than ever to implement lockdowns and mandates and stay at home orders - but we trusted our people.
We encouraged people to gather differently in their homes for holidays.
Tennesseans responded, and helped us blunt a post-holiday surge.
Our cases counts have plummeted, down more than two thirds since our peak six weeks ago.
More important than that, our hospitalization numbers have sharply declined as COVID cases in hospitals have dropped more than 60% since our peak.
We have had this success thanks to the people of our state and the brave service of our health care workers.
So I want to say directly to them: thank you.
The successes we are seeing now are because of your diligence and sacrifice.
I also want to thank the team of public health professionals, and members of Unified-Command Group who have been common sense partners despite very harsh critics.
I also want to thank members of the Tennessee National Guard.
Soldiers and airmen have been the face of service through natural disasters and this pandemic.
We are so grateful to these men and women who stand at the ready for our state.
Deregulation has been one of the single most important functions in our pandemic response.
One critical role of our executive orders has been to make it easier to do business amid the pandemic.
Increasing the availability of telemedicine services, delaying driver license renewals, and allowing for transparent virtual meetings of local governments are a few examples of this.
Our ability to deregulate and pivot quickly has saved lives.
Another critical role of our executive orders has been to access needed federal funds - hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency funding relying on state of emergency declaration.
And one last thing on this subject that's important to me: our executive orders explicitly protected houses of worship from being regulated or shut down in any way.
Our response has been effective, and as cases have dropped, many sectors of our economy are roaring.
In fact, many segments of our economy are more prosperous than this time last year.
In the worst economic phase of the pandemic, our unemployment rate climbed to 15.5 percent, but now it is 6.4 percent.
We created the Tennessee Talent Exchange which connected unemployed workers with jobs.
Our workforce participation rate has improved drastically during the last year.
It's better today than it was before the pandemic, and we have now exceeded the national average for the first time in 25 years.
But some of our industries are struggling, and we have spent long hours and hundreds of millions of dollars to help Tennesseans keep their businesses.
In June 2020, the Tennessee Business Relief Program was launched.
A total of 200 million dollars in business relief payments has been distributed to over 27,000 small businesses in Tennessee.
In October 2020, the Supplemental Employer Recovery Grant (SERG) program was established. 125 million dollars of the coronavirus relief funds has been reserved for this program.
To date, 30 million dollars has been distributed in grant funding to over 1,300 businesses.
A strong economy means many things for Tennesseans, and one of them is low taxes and fiscal stability for their government.
A recent report shows Tennessee is one of only seven states to have positive economic growth since April 2020 when much of our economy was shut down. One of seven.
We've cut a number of taxes since taking office two years ago, and we are recognized as the third least taxed state in the nation.
So let me thank and congratulate the General Assembly and the constitutional officers for that accomplishment.
Comptroller Wilson and Treasurer Lillard have been fierce guardians of our strong fiscal position.
I thank Justin Wilson for his service and welcome you, Comptroller Mumpower to build upon that legacy.
Likewise, our fiscal stability and management have again won high praise even this year, when many states are dealing with budget crises on top of other challenges.
We have worked with members of the General Assembly to create the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group, which has ensured good stewardship of federal dollars that have come our way.
This group has been both a bi-partisan effort and a fully transparent effort to ensure that it is open to the press and the public.
I thank Lt. Gov McNally, Speaker Sexton, Sen. Watson, Sen. Akbari, Rep. Marsh and Rep. Love who each served on this committee, for your partnership in this endeavor.
We have taken a fiscally conservative approach throughout this past year, maintaining strong reserves and budgeting for conservative growth rates.
Indeed, our budget is strong, and the differences are stark when you compare our state's conservative budget to states with very different approaches.
But a strong budget isn't just about bragging rights.
A strong budget allows us to be good stewards of what the taxpayers have entrusted to us.
Those of us who run businesses know that deferring maintenance is a bad idea and therefore we have ignored the temptation to put off these projects amid economic uncertainty.
In this year's budget I'm proposing the largest capital maintenance budget in our state's history - more than 900 million dollars in capital improvements and maintenance on both state buildings and higher education campuses.
We are also eliminating the backlog of deferred maintenance at state parks with a 30 million dollar investment. Addressing maintenance is the fiscally responsible thing to do.
We are also meeting other important obligations in our budget.
We will fully fund the BEP funding formula and the THEC outcomes-based formula, ensuring our students are put in the best possible position to recover from the pandemic.
And when the dust settles on this year, our combined Rainy Day and TennCare reserve funds will be 2 billion dollars - the largest in the state's history.
We proactively used our state's federal relief dollars to ensure the solvency of our unemployment trust fund, minimize the tax burden on employers, and encourage hiring.
As a result, while over half of states have lost more than 75% of their trust fund value, Tennessee is entering 2021 fully solvent, at the lowest employer tax rate.
Let me put this in practical terms: prudent management of the Unemployment Trust Fund staved off a projected 300% tax increase on Tennessee employers for unemployment insurance.
Now more than ever, we can look at our economic forecast and say: it matters who governs, and conservative principles work.
Our budget situation allows us to stand up here after a very challenging year and recommend a number of bold proposals for your consideration.
But before I do that, let me say a word about the recent special legislative session.
We met here two weeks ago for a historic special session. It was bold. And it will change the lives of our children.
I won't reiterate our accomplishments there but will add that the work continues for teacher pay raises.
During the special session we allocated almost $43 million dollars for teacher pay raises.
This was a step in the right direction, and the budget I'm submitting for your consideration this week recommends an additional $120 million dollars be set aside for teacher compensation in the 21-22 budget.
This year has already brought other historic successes as well.
After a year and a half of negotiating, Tennessee recently became the first state in history to receive a Medicaid block grant waiver from the federal government.
This waiver will allow those in our Medicaid population to reap the benefit from our state's strong fiscal management of the TennCare program.
It will also require us to meet a number of quality metrics, so we ensure that savings will not be accrued by cutting back on the number of people we serve or compromising the services that we currently provide in any way.
Furthermore, I am committing today that we will use the shared savings to do important work like shortening the waiting list for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities who need services.
Let me be clear: if partisan attacks that call for this block grant to be rescinded prevail, the state will not get these shared savings dollars that we plan to use to improve healthcare for vulnerable Tennesseans.
This block grant is a big deal and I'm proud of it, but it's not all we're doing to improve health care in Tennessee.
My budget proposal includes $6.5 million dollars to extend postpartum coverage to all women receiving TennCare benefits from 60 days to 12 months to increase access to care for new moms.
We're making a $2 million dollar investment in our health care safety net so that those without health insurance have a place to go when they need it.
And we're also adding $6.5 million in our mental health safety net which will be focused on providing services for school-aged children struggling with mental health issues.
I mentioned partisanship earlier and I want to address the recent election.
There was no greater stage for partisan politics than the final months of 2020 with partisan divides impacting almost every aspect of American life.
I have great concerns about our country's faith in the integrity of our election process.
Thankfully, our state has stayed well above that controversy.
If every state ran their election process like Tennessee, we'd have no delays and no scandal.
I credit you, Secretary Hargett, for your leadership to ensure Tennessee elections have integrity and that we do our part to protect the democratic process.
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.
Because Tennessee knows what we need a lot better than the federal government.
Perhaps one of the most important lessons that has come out of this season is that Americans need to understand how their government works.
Two years ago we created the Governor's Civics Seal to ensure we raise a generation of young people who are knowledgeable in American history and confident in navigating their civic responsibilities.
This year, we are expanding this initiative.
Using federal dollars, we're doubling the number of schools participating in the Civics Seal Initiative which will ensure that thousands more students get a better civics education.
Going forward we are developing a set of instructional materials that will be free to districts, so that ultimately every school can earn the Governor's Civics Seal at no cost.
As we look to the regular session that you will begin tomorrow, we have conservative proposals for your consideration that will reduce crime, support strong families, and get our economy back up to speed, especially in rural Tennessee.
Our proposals honor the individual yet benefit the state as a whole, and they will leave us well-positioned for the recovery that has already begun across our state.
As you all know, rural Tennessee is close to my heart and making it stronger is a major priority for my administration.
Revitalization starts with economic development, and quality economic development is about investing directly into communities.
We've proposed $21 million dollars to invest in rural communities and distressed counties to directly support rural infrastructure, industrial site development, small business development and revitalizing small town main streets.
Whether it's running a small business, accessing virtual learning, or accessing health care via telemedicine, slow internet speeds have many in rural Tennessee left at a disadvantage.
I have proposed record investments in broadband since becoming Governor, and I am grateful for the legislature's support on this issue.
But - I am ready for us to solve this issue once and for all.
A significant, one-time investment, combined with significant private investment, will get broadband to just about every community in Tennessee, and tonight, that's exactly what I'm proposing.
To help us achieve our goal of every Tennessean having access to high speed broadband, my budget recommends an investment of 200 million dollars.
One major reason broadband expansion is important is to improve educational outcomes in rural areas.
We are doing that in other ways as well.
As you know, I have strongly advocated for the expanded use of public private and non-profit partnerships that empowers the private sector to help us achieve important objectives without being hampered by red tape and bureaucracy.
This year, we are proposing a new partnership with the Ayers Family Foundation to create a first of its kind rural education partnership that will improve both the college-going and college success rate of students in our rural communities.
This is a proven program that is already serving thousands of students, and I know they can do even more with our support.
Even as we launch new programs like this, programs we have launched in the last two years are already paying off for our kids.
We funded 28 projects in 18 at-risk counties through the Governor's Investment in Vocational Education also known as the GIVE Act.
These projects created a new template for vocational education in this state, and we owe it to our students to keep the momentum going, despite the pandemic.
This year, I'm proposing an additional 10 million dollars to create ten new GIVE sites, with a priority on distressed and at-risk communities with the greatest need of workforce revitalization.
Last year, the Future Workforce Initiative that I proposed and you enacted trained more than 200 teachers in STEM CTE programs and expanded access to AP computer science courses by 75%.
Apprenticeship Tennessee is our statewide initiative to advance apprenticeship opportunities for employers in every part of the state.
It's working - we have the highest number of Tennessee apprentices in a decade.
This is grassroots workforce development and it's starting in our classrooms.
While we have strengthened specific aspects of rural education, we have invested in our urban centers, too:
More than $20 million in federal grants will largely support added tutoring and technology for students in our urban areas.
The reason we place so much focus on education is because students should be prepared for productive lives, not just the latest standardized test.
I recently had a conversation with Commissioner Schwinn that the mission of the Department of Education should be simple: Students should be prepared for life beyond the classroom. Our education policy impacts our kids today.
Our other policies dictate what sort of state our children will inherit tomorrow and that starts with how we approach families in our state.
You know that I am strongly pro-life and I will continue to defend this position.
Last year I stood before you and presented one of the most aggressive pro-life bills in the country.
That bill passed and it was an important day for our state, and a memorable one for me.
But being pro-life isn't just about defending the unborn and we must also think about how to use our passion for this issue to improve the lives of struggling families.
My administration is preparing a number of new initiatives that we'll announce throughout the year that will make Tennessee a national leader in foster care and adoption.
We are partnering the Department of Children's Services, our faith-based office, and several third party stakeholders to create partnerships with families and churches across our state that will move us toward a goal of every child in Tennessee having a loving home.
No doubt one of our goals must be fewer broken families, but there are things we can do to make the foster and adoption system work better when families do break up.
We are proposing a TennCare coverage extension for adopted youth that will allow them to retain their TennCare eligibility until age 18 regardless of federal or state adoption assistance eligibility.
This extension will allow them to have a seamless transition into their new families, retaining existing physical, mental, and behavioral health services and reducing the fiscal burden of adoption on their new family.
Another key part of our efforts to support children and families is within the Governor's Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives.
Among other successes in the last year, the Faith-Based Office played an important role in engaging our local faith communities to help connect people with employment services.
As we've seen over the last year, there are times when Tennessee families need an extra hand to make ends meet.
We have an opportunity to deploy resources and help those families by modernizing more than 700 million dollars in our Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding.
Between the efforts of the TANF working group and our new Human Services Commissioner, Clarence Carter, I believe we have a transformational solution to modernize TANF.
Our proposals provide families a pathway to prosperity, while enhancing protections against fraud, waste, and abuse by incentivizing education and apprenticeships, increasing the allotment amount for working families, and improving stakeholder engagement - all while strengthening program integrity.
Tennessee families deserve safe neighborhoods and I will again bring forward legislation this year that accomplishes that.
You've heard me say many times that we have to be tough on crime, and smart on crime.
The legislation will look familiar to you - it was moving through committee last year when we had to set it aside to focus on our COVID-19 response.
In addition, my budget includes 4.7 million dollars for additional day reporting centers and evidenced-based programming for community supervision.
This approach ensures that re-entry to society is done in the most safe and effective way possible for those who were formerly incarcerated.
Safe neighborhoods require law enforcement that is well-supported and well-trained, and we have made a number of important strides for criminal justice reform and police training this year.
We know that law enforcement is a calling, and the men and women who take an oath to serve and protect deserve the best and most comprehensive training to benefit themselves and the communities they interact with.
We've improved training standards and paid for almost 100 cadets to attend improved law enforcement training at no cost to their local communities.
We also added a new class of State Troopers and 20 new TBI Field Agents.
I think we can all agree that our law enforcement officials in our state have done an incredible job in protecting and serving the people of Tennessee.
Now, more than ever, Tennesseans want a strong commitment to the Second Amendment and the right to protect themselves.
And as such, I will be reintroducing Constitutional Carry legislation this year.
Besides all of these legislative proposals, I'd like to mention a few additional budget priorities before I close.
I said at the start how proud I am of my staff and cabinet, and I am just as proud of all of our fellow co-workers, the best state employees in all of America.
As with teachers, my budget recommends a 4 percent raise for state employees as well.
To help local governments and communities recover from COVID faster, we are proposing 200 million dollar investment in local government infrastructure grants.
This funding will assist local governments with public safety projects, upgrades to utility systems and IT services, capital maintenance projects such as road improvements, new school construction, and school renovations.
We have worked for months to develop a budget for your consideration. One that is fiscally conservative and developed with a responsible attitude of stewardship of the hard-earned dollars of Tennessee taxpayers.
This has been a very long and challenging year for our nation and our state.
There has been a tragic loss of life, loss of incomes, loss of learning for our kids.
In many respects, one of our most difficult years in recent history.
But I've learned over my 61 years of life that God is a Redeemer.
He takes what is tragic and makes it transformational.
There are things that we never would have known, insights we never would have been awakened to.
Through times of trial we become more purposeful and more resolute.
We see things more clearly, we act with more intention and we have a greater opportunity more than ever to seize the moment and shape the future.
To see the needs of our neighbors around us, every single one of them and to commit to serving them.
Tennesseans, transformation will define us.
The state of our state is indeed hopeful.
I thank you for the honor I have been given to serve alongside each of you, this state and her people.
I still believe and I always will believe in Tennessee.
May God bless each of you and may God bless our state.