As he enters the final year of his first term, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee is moving forward.
Lee struck a post-pandemic tone Monday night in his final State of the State address before facing voters for reelection, sidestepping mention of COVID-19 while proposing the state’s largest ever budget and “policies that reinforce freedom, innovation, exceptionalism and optimism.”
“‘Tennessee – America at Its Best’ embraces both sides of the coin: we acknowledge our shortcomings but build on our best,” Lee said, referencing the state slogan. “It reminds me of the truth in Scripture: Great faith is required to keep pushing for the things not yet seen. Today, our country faces challenges of a different kind, but I believe now more than ever, Tennessee embodies ‘America at Its Best.’”
Lee on Monday proposed a $52.5 billion fiscal 2023 spending plan, a nearly $10 billion increase thanks in part to an infusion of federal funds.
A large portion of the budget and Lee’s legislative priorities will focus on K-12 education and a long-promised revamp of the Basic Education Program, the state’s current funding formula.
Lee is seeking $1 billion for his education plan, including $750 million toward the new funding formula, the details of which have not yet been proposed for lawmakers.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s budget:Here’s what’s in the $52.5 billion proposal
“Time and time again, we have heard the same message: we need a smarter, more transparent, accountable education funding formula, and the time is now,” Lee said.
“A formula that prioritizes the needs of students above all else, and that pays particular attention to students with disabilities, rural students, low income-students, and students with other priority needs. If we do this correctly, we can create a funding formula that demands accountability and rewards districts for performance, but most importantly funds students and not bureaucracies.”
Lee was interrupted by applause more than 40 times as he spoke to a joint session of the Tennessee General Assembly, where his Republican Party holds the supermajority. Outside the House chamber doors, a number of protesters gathered, saying Lee has failed at a number of issues affecting the state, including the COVID-19 response, police accountability, voting rights and women’s rights.
House Democratic Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie called Lee’s remarks unsubstantial and sharply criticized the governor’s avoidance of COVID-19.
“There are over 22,000 people who have lost their lives to this pandemic, to this particular disease, to this virus,” Dixie said. “We talked about a lot of government overreach and civil liberties, but the most important thing he needed to talk about today is our COVID response and how we keep each and every one of us safe.”
Lee also proposed depositing another $50 million into the state’s rainy day fund which, combined with the state’s existing TennCare reserve, would grow the state’s reserve over $2 billion.
Advocates of the ballooning reserve in recent years have said the conservative reserve is crucial to cushion the state against possible economic downturns. But Democrats and advocacy groups have called for the state to tap into the funds to better fund health care coverage, child care and other benefits for Tennesseans.
“We still have people out here struggling every day to make ends meet, and we’re bragging we have money set aside for a rainy day that never comes,” Dixie said. “He has woefully missed the mark on what he could do to make Tennessee better.”
Lee proposed $1 billion in new, recurring spending ahead of any Basic Education Program changes. It includes $750 million in preemptive funding for any new funding formula that is expected to be introduced this year but has not yet been filed in legislation.
The $750 million — if it does become recurring — is well below what some have said is needed to fully fund the outdated Basic Education Program.
In recent years, the state and local communities have spent $2.1 billion more on schools than what has been allocated in the K-12 funding formula, according to the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, or TACIR. It would take an additional $1.7 billion to fully fund current education costs outlined in the state’s current formula alone, according to a 2020 TACIR report.
Though Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn emphasized Monday that a new formula would be “fully funded,” whether a proposed formula details the local match, or required amount for local communities to contribute to education, is yet to be seen.
This year, the one-time funding would instead be used for three strategic investments: increasing school infrastructure for career and technical education programs, moving 14 schools out of flood plains (including schools in Sumner, Shelby and Hamilton counties) and a $50 million investment in the state’s GROW and SPARK programs.
The catastrophic floods in Waverly, Tenn., in 2021 moved Lee to propose the flood plain move, he said, to ensure no Tennessee students would attend public school in a flood zone.
“The tragedy, the heartache, the loss was hard to take in. I walked into the elementary school where the water rose to four feet in 10 minutes,” Lee said. “I saw desks and backpacks and books piled up against the door where water rushed out. If the Waverly flood happened on Friday instead of Saturday, we would be mourning the loss of hundreds of Tennessee children.”
At least $125 million is earmarked out of $250 million proposed recurring education funds for teacher compensation. Though Lee emphasized money marked for teacher salaries should go straight to teacher pocketbooks, how much of an increase the average teacher could see is unclear.
“Historically, funds put in the salary pool don’t always make it to deserving teachers,” Lee said. “When we say teachers are getting a raise, there should be no bureaucratic workaround to prevent that. In our updated funding formula, we will ensure a teacher raise is a teacher raise.”
In the past, the state has often proposed specific percent increases with teachers, in reality, seeing far less without local communities matching the increase with local dollars.
In a preemptive response last week, Dixie criticized the move to revamp the BEP as too little, too late.
“Every Tennessee child — no matter their zip code — deserves the highest quality education that can possibly be provided,” Dixie, D-Nashville, said. “Instead of once again asking our teachers to do more. It’s time the governor do his job and give educators a raise that actually hits their bank account. Instead of fighting over which books can be in the library, let’s fight to provide every classroom with high-quality books and materials that students need to learn.”
Lee is also seeking significant funding for higher education institutions in the state, including $250 million to Tennessee State University.
The new money would come after a report by Office of Legislative Budget Analysis last year showed Tennessee may have underfunded the university for decades. The report said the state may owe TSU between $151 million to $544 million in land-grant funding.
As he heads into election season, Lee called for “smarter and smaller” government, touting Tennessee as home for people “fleeing states with rising crime and plummeting support for police.”
Lee leaned into Republican talking points on Monday, previewing a new law he will support to “ensure parents know what materials are available to students in their libraries.”
Lee’s comments come on the heels of several controversial moves in Tennessee schools to alter curriculum amid complaints from vocal conservative parent groups.
“The vast majority of parents believe they should be allowed to see books, curriculum and other items used in the classroom,” Lee said. “That’s how I felt about my own kids, and I stand with those parents today. We are proposing a new law that will ensure parents know what materials are available to students in their libraries. This law will also create greater accountability at the local level so parents are empowered to make sure content is age-appropriate.”
Lee also announced plans to formalize a partnership with Hillsdale College, a conservative school in Michigan, to “expand their approach to civics education and K-12 education” in Tennessee.
The governor on Monday claimed many colleges “have become centers of anti-American thought, leaving our students not only ill-equipped but confused,” and pledged $6 million to establish an “Institute of American Civics” at the University of Tennessee.
“This will be a flagship for the nation — a beacon celebrating intellectual diversity at our universities and teaching how a responsible, civic-minded people strengthens our country and our communities,” Lee said.
Lee briefly mentioned nurses and health care workers, but otherwise didn’t mention COVID-19 and the pandemic, despite its ongoing effect on Tennessee from testing clinics to hospital rooms to the state budget.
The state last week averaged about 3,300 people hospitalized with COVID-19, about 85% of the delta peak, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lee proposed an $82 million allocation to public hospitals to cover uncompensated care, in addition to an 418 million plan to attract 150 primary care medical residents for rural communities.
“You can’t be the best state for families unless you’re the best state for all families,” Lee said. “I believe we have significant work to do in improving access to health care for Tennessee families. Because of our prudent fiscal management, we’re making huge investments in rural healthcare in this budget. And that means actual care, not just keeping hospitals open. We need qualified, dedicated physicians and staff in rural areas.”
In other health funding, he proposed expanding dental care for more than 600,000 TennCare recipients, which would come with a $25 million price tag.
Reach Melissa Brown at [email protected]
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