In the year since his first State of the State, how did Gov. Bill Lee do? We see how he delivered

In early March, Gov. Bill Lee gave his first State of the State speech, addressing a House chamber full of lawmakers and Tennesseans about his plans for his first year in office.

Lee outlined his goals for K-12 education, criminal justice reform and vocational training, announcing a controversial school voucher program, pay raises for prison officers and a grant program to allow high school students to work on industry certification.

He also foreshadowed a multibillion-dollar Medicaid block grant proposal the state would later unveil and submit to the federal government.

Ahead of Lee delivering his second address — set for Monday at 6 p.m. CST before a joint session of the Tennessee General Assembly — we took a look at his first State of the State address and checked how many of his plans panned out.

Read on to find key excerpts of the speech, highlighted in yellow, and updates on how Lee delivered on those promises.

Lee’s first State of the State

Lt. Gov. McNally, Speaker Casada, Speaker Pro Tem Haile, Speaker Pro Tem Dunn, members of the 111th General Assembly, justices, constitutional officers, friends, family, guests and fellow Tennesseans: 

Tennessee’s voters and its constitution have given me the responsibility of delivering this address evaluating where we are as a state and recommending action to make us even better. 

I am truly grateful for this opportunity to serve, and it is my high honor to be here tonight. 

There’s a Scripture that encourages us to consider others as more important than ourselves. 

And before I begin tonight, I want to acknowledge the woman in my life who embodies that the most, my wife and the first lady of Tennessee, Maria. 

You and I have a first lady who is deeply committed to serving this state purposefully, and she challenges me every day to likewise govern with purpose. 

Thank you, Maria. I love you. 

And let me say welcome to our Cabinet and to our staff: You’re doing a remarkable job, and you make us all very proud. 

The year that my oldest daughter turned 16, Jessica, she and I took a father-daughter trip for her birthday. We had both been through some very challenging and traumatic personal experiences, and we decided to do something that would be “overcoming.” 

So we traveled to the Grand Teton National Park, and we decided to climb one of the tallest mountains in the country.  

It’s a difficult and technical climb, and we had to train for months, both physically and mentally.  

The apex of our trip would take us to 14,000 feet above sea level. And our first day we were to hike to 11,000 feet to spend the night.  

As we approached the base camp, our guide, probably sensing my nervousness, he pulled me aside and he said something very important.  

He said, “You need to make a decision that you’re going to make this climb before you get to the base camp.

“Because when you get there you’re going to look up at the Grand Teton, and it’ll look like a massive granite spire that sticks straight up higher than you ever imagined, and you’ll feel very intimidated.  

“And if you have any, even the tiniest, doubt in your mind that you can do it as you’re hiking up there today, then once you stand at the base camp tonight and look up, you’ll be convinced that you can’t possibly climb it.”  

So he told me that I needed to decide right then and there whether I was going to finish that climb.  

I did decide, and we did finish, and let me tell you, it’s like everything that’s difficult — the view from the top was well worth the climb.  

As a state, our challenges, too, are difficult, and the climb will require great effort, but Tennessee is a remarkable place, with remarkable people.  

Now, I think we can all agree that while very important things happen in the halls of government, it’s actually what happens outside of this place that makes Tennessee truly great. 

And nearly every Friday since we took office, Maria and I have gone out of this building to meet people in their communities to learn about what really makes our state work.  

We met with soybean farmers in Lauderdale County who navigate the flooding Mississippi water to pull in a harvest and carry on our proud agricultural tradition. 

We met a third grade teacher in North Nashville who works overtime to ensure her kids are reading at grade level and that they continue to lead the nation in achievement.

We met a small-business owner in Jamestown who employs neighbors and keeps the backbone of the Tennessee economy running strong.  

And so, as a lifelong Tennessean myself, when I reflect on our state, and I see her people, I’m filled with pride.  

So to our elected leaders in this room and the many Tennesseans watching from their homes, I am proud to report after seeing with my own eyes: The state of our state is hopeful, and prosperous, and strong.  

God has truly blessed us — our economy is growing, our schools are improving, our natural resources are abundant and beautiful; indeed, we are the envy of many states.  

But while our prosperity should be celebrated, it should not be taken for granted, for it was not granted to us.  

Our prosperity has been hard won. From the first settlers in the 1790s to the leaders of the past and the present, many have contributed to the success that we now enjoy.

Our military veterans living, and those remembered, deserve the most honored place among those that we thank for where we are today.  

We recognize the service of our heroes, and I’d like to talk for just a minute about one family in particular who has embodied that service and that sacrifice.  

U.S. Navy Lt. Richard C. “Tito” Lannom — Tito, I’m sorry, Tito Lannom, gotta get that right — of Union City was reported missing as of March 1, 1968, during the Vietnam War.  

The Obion County native was assigned to Attack Squadron Three Five aboard the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier and was on an A-6A aircraft on a night mission over North Vietnam.  

Like many, Tito did not come back.  

Lannom and the pilot were declared missing after a search and rescue mission failed to locate their plane.  

He was 27 years old.  

In 2017, the Vietnamese excavated a crash site on Tra Ban Island and they were able ultimately to identify Lannom last September.  

And this past weekend, our state had a memorial service for him.  

After more than 50 years, Lt. Lannom’s final resting place is home, on Tennessee soil, where he belongs.  

Please join me in pausing to remember Lt. Lannom and the sacrifice that Tito and so many others have made for our country with a moment of silence.  

And now, please join me in recognizing the family of Lt. Tito Lannom who has come from across Tennessee to be with us. Thank you for all your sacrifices and for being here tonight.  

Indeed, this is a remarkable state with remarkable people, but past success should not be taken for granted and future success should not be assumed.  

We can be glad for the things that have been done that have brought us to this point, but we must also recognize that new accomplishments will be required from the leaders of today if we are to reach our full potential tomorrow.  

Maybe the key question before us is whether we will stay here and enjoy the view from this far up the mountain or we will push ahead to new heights and new prosperity. 

My encouragement to you — to all of us — is that we press ahead.

A stronger education system, a better prepared workforce, a system of justice that lives up to its name and safer neighborhoods all across our state.  

These and more goals are within our reach if we unite behind a common vision.  

In addition to delivering this address, I also have the task of proposing to you a state budget.  

By God’s favor our state is in a strong financial position, and I believe that my proposed budget reflects that.  

Managing a budget is one of the most important jobs that government has, and proposing a fiscally responsible budget is one of the most important jobs that I have as governor.  

And as a conservative businessman, I know that a good budget needs to pay for what we need, take on zero long-term debt and, most importantly, save for a rainy day.  

As our state continues to grow, we’re committed to remaining among the most fiscally sound and best managed states in America. 

We live in prosperous days, but it’s precisely during these times when we must build up our storehouses for when times may not be as good.  

And for that reason, I am particularly proud of this: In my budget, we’re making the largest single contribution to our rainy day fund in the state’s history.  

When this budget is implemented, our rainy day fund will be $1.1 billion — the largest it’s ever been in real dollars.  


Last spring, the legislature approved a $225 million deposit into the Rainy Day Fund — the largest ever made at once — to bring the total up to $1.1 billion. That large one-time deposit came from money from the 2018-19 fiscal year, said Sen. Bo Watson, chair of the Senate finance committee.

While Watson and a spokesperson for the Department of Finance & Administration were unclear on whether the money has already been transferred or if that will happen at the end of the 2020 budget year, the budget passed by the legislature does specify that the rainy day fund should be at least $1.1 billion by June 30, 2020. — Natalie Allison, The Tennessean


This budget is fiscally conservative and it stays within the Copeland Cap, which as you in this room know is in our state’s constitution as a guardrail against out-of-control government spending.  

I have said many times that Tennessee can and should lead the nation, and this budget will help us do that.  

In particular, there are four things in my budget and legislative agenda that I believe we must do if the goal to lead the nation is to become a reality.  

First, Tennessee must deliver a world-class education and that education must be aligned with the needs of the job creators of today and of the future.  

To accomplish that, our students need more guidance, our teachers and our principals need more support, and our parents need more choices.  

I’ve spoken often about the 4 out of 10 students will not attend college in this state.

For them, we must vastly strengthen our vocational and technical and agricultural educational offerings to make sure that they’re career-ready.  

After 35 years in the private sector, I know the job market can change quickly and education must stay in sync with industry.  

When companies like Google, and Apple, and IBM no longer require a college degree for many high-skilled jobs, we know that we need to think differently about how we approach preparing our kids for success.  

Elementary and middle schools need to begin skills training earlier, and, from top to bottom, high school needs to look a lot different.  

In that spirit, I’m proposing the Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education, the GIVE Act.  

The GIVE Act is a $25 million investment to increase the number of young people earning an industry certification and entering a career within one year of high school.  


The GIVE Act was one of Lee’s first education proposals as governor and passed easily before lawmakers. The state has awarded 28 grants across the state. — Jason Gonzales, The Tennessean


Another one of our goals is to put Tennessee in the top half of states for technology sector job creation by 2022.  

And to that end, I announced the Future Workforce Initiative, a $4 million effort to increase science, technology, engineering and mathematics — STEM training — in our K-12 schools.  

The Future Workforce Initiative will add 100 new CTE programs, grow the number of teachers qualified to teach work-based learning and computer science classes, and it will expand access to AP courses and early postsecondary options for high schoolers.  

We’re also investing in agricultural education by allocating new recurring funding for both 4-H and FFA youth programs.  

These programs and other educational programs like them are so important, and it takes the work of dedicated teachers and principals to make sure that our students are being well prepared. 

One such teacher is Dan Smith from Dyer County, and he’s an example of the thousands of dedicated teachers that we’re fortunate to have in this state.  

Dan’s a horticulture and agriculture teacher at Dyer County High School. He’s a former agriculture Teacher of the Year because of his exemplary work with students.  

He’s coordinated massive plant sales, integrated master gardeners and landscaped his entire school, and that is just the beginning. 

He’s a pillar in his community. He embodies the term agricultural education.

He is with us here today, and I want you to join me, representing teachers all across this state, in thanking him for his years of dedicated work to improve the lives of the students of Tennessee. Thank you, Dan. Please stand. 

Many students will go to college, and for that group we want to provide world-class higher education options across our state.  

We must continue to invest in our outcomes-based and outcomes-focused approach to funding higher education, which is why we have set aside $34 million new dollars in this budget to fully fund our higher education institutions.  


The governor fully funded the state’s higher education outcomes-based funding formula. — Jason Gonzales, The Tennessean


We will also invest more than $12 million in financial aid to add nearly 7,000 students in need to those that we help attend college or obtain a certificate here in Tennessee.  


The $12 million went to the Tennessee Student Assistance Award program, which provides financial assistance to low-income undergraduate students who are residents of Tennessee. — Jason Gonzales, The Tennessean


We are also adding resources to help prepare disadvantaged students for college, so they can best take advantage of the opportunities they earn.  

We’re making CTE a major priority, but we also want to do other things well.  

I fundamentally believe that every child ought to have access to a great traditional public school.  

And so even as we consider expanding options in this state, we must redouble our efforts to make sure that public schools in Tennessee are well-resourced and that Tennessee teachers and principals are the best and most celebrated in the business.  

First and foremost, we are fully funding the Basic Education Program and we’re recommending $71 million for a well-deserved 2.5% pay raise for teachers.  


Lee did fund the teacher pay raises in his first year, although it’s hard to say whether the full 2.5% went to every teacher as districts have flexibility to use money for pay raises to add employees and fill vacant teacher positions.

Fully funding the Basic Education Program, however, is a statement that is under dispute. Some education advocates, local school officials and many Democrats argue the Basic Education Program is outdated and does not meet the needs of classrooms. Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools are involved in a lawsuit over education spending, which alleges underfunding by the state. — Jason Gonzales, The Tennessean


Additionally, to support educators and school leaders, we’re proposing investments in the professional development of rural principals and expansion of the Rural Principal Network.  


Lee earmarked $500,000 in nonrecurring funds to support the Gov. Bill Haslam created Rural Principal Network. — Jason Gonzales, The Tennessean


In response to the increasing needs of our lowest-performing 5% of schools, we are investing $5 million into improving student and teacher support in our priority schools.  


In Lee’s budget, the state put aside $3.9 million for competitive grants to the state’s lowest-performing schools. The state also put almost $1 million aside for principal leadership at struggling schools. Districts have until June 30 to use that money. — Jason Gonzales, The Tennessean


Across our state, we have leaders and qualified educators who are making the sacrifice to serve on local school boards and to bring their ideas to the table.  

Later this month, I will send a letter to every school board member and superintendent in this state seeking their input on what is working and what should still be done to make Tennessee the home of the best public schools in America. 

To those of you listening today, please know that I look forward to personally reading your individual responses. 

In my budget, I propose a three-year pilot program to provide critical student support services to high school students in our ever important rural distressed 15 counties.

These funds will be matched by private donations and will allow us to provide meaningful support while also measuring the positive effects of this pilot program for rural Tennessee. 

I have often said that education is about more than a test score, but test scores can provide valuable data to both teachers and students when used properly. 

Later this month, tens of thousands of students will be completing their end-of-course testing to help ensure that they are receiving the highest quality education that they deserve.  

There has been a lot of frustration around the administration of this test in this state for the last couple years, and I share that frustration. 

My commissioner of education is working tirelessly to prepare for this year’s test to minimize challenges, but more importantly working tirelessly to finalize the procurement process for selecting a new test vendor for next year and beyond. 

But while the execution must get better, we must remain committed to the notion that you can’t improve what you don’t measure. 

Going forward, our focus will be on executing a testing regimen that’s trustworthy, that’s helpful and that is on time. 

Now whatever else happens in the classroom, the safety of our students and of our teachers is paramount for my administration and for all of our elected leaders. 

And for that reason, I am asking the legislature to join with me to fund an additional $30 million investment in our school safety fund and to prioritize the districts with schools who currently have no school resource officers on duty.  


Included in this year’s budget is $30 million for the state’s school safety grant fund, which allows school districts to apply for grants to pay for school resource officers or make upgrades to other on-campus security measures. Of that allocation, $20 million is nonrecurring.

In a budget hearing last fall, however, representatives from the Department of Education noted that some districts were reluctant to apply for grants for SROs due to concerns over the lack of recurring dollars in the fund. — Natalie Allison, The Tennessean


Together, we can make sure that every school is a safer place for our children.  

In my inaugural address, I said that Tennesseans would have to be bold, and courageous, and strong in the face of our greatest challenges.  

One of those challenges is closing the gap between the quality of education offered to students regardless of their ZIP code.  

Tennessee has led the nation with important K-12 education reforms over the last decade, and we’ve seen the payoff: Our student outcomes have been among the fastest improving in the nation.  

But sustained improvement requires constant innovation, and we must keep looking for the next game changer. 

Parents need more choices with respect to the education of their children, and those options should be well-funded and highly accountable.

Students have different needs and abilities, and our education system should reflect that diversity as best as possible. 

I believe highly accountable public charter schools are a great model for expanding choice without sacrificing quality, and I have seen firsthand how they can dramatically impact the life and trajectory of a student.  

In my budget, we are doubling the amount of public charter school facility funding, and I will support legislation this year that makes it easier to open good charter schools and easier to close bad ones.  


In his budget, Lee was able to secure $12 million — double the funding in the previous year — for the Tennessee Department of Education’s Charter School Facilities Fund. The state announced in October it would distribute half of the funds to 117 charter schools. The state opened another competitive grant application process for the funds soon after in November.

Lee also was successful in creating a state charter school commission. The commission will serve in a similar capacity as the Tennessee State Board of Education in that it will have the final say on charter school appeals in districts. The commission will be formed in the 2020-21 fiscal year and feature a nine-member board with three representatives from each of the state’s grand divisions. — Jason Gonzales, The Tennessean


But we should do even more.  

Nearly 1 in 3 students born into poverty does not finish high school in Tennessee, and a child that doesn’t finish high school is more likely to stay in poverty.  

Low-income students deserve the same opportunities as every other kid in this state, and we will need a bold plan that will help level the playing field.  

We need to change the status quo and increase competition, and not slow down until every student in Tennessee has access to a great education.  

We’re not going to get big results in our struggling schools by nibbling around the edges. 

That is why we need education savings accounts in Tennessee this year.  

ESAs will enable low-income students from the most under-performing schools to attend an independent school of their choice at no cost to their family.  

Now the greatest concern about programs like this is that it will take money away from public schools, but my ESA plan will invest at least $25 million new dollars in public schools in the first year to fill the gap when a student transfers to another school. 

My ESA plan will strengthen public schools and provide choices for parents at the same time.  


It’s true that Lee was able to get education savings accounts created in the state. Education savings accounts are a controversial school voucher-style program that provides parents with public money to spend on private school or items such as supplies and educational services.

His original proposal for the program, however, was limited by lawmakers. Lee targeted five districts, including Knox, Hamilton and Jackson-Madison schools, to be eligible for the program.

In the end, a severely altered bill was passed after a controversial vote in the House and close vote in the Senate.

Despite concerns from House leadership, Lee wants the program to begin in the 2020-21 school year. In its first year, 5,000 seats will be available to students who are zoned to attend Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools, as well as students in those districts attending the state-run Achievement School District.

The program will also provide money to districts to fund the gap from students leaving public school and attending a private school. — Jason Gonzales, The Tennessean


Creating competition will provide a new incentive for schools to improve and provide new opportunities for thousands of students.  

Members of the legislature, now is the time.  

Let’s make this the year that every student in Tennessee has a chance at a great education, no matter where they live. 

Another important issue in education is curriculum.

We should continue to root out the influence of Common Core everywhere we find it in this state, but there’s another issue that we should be mindful of as well.  

During the past two years of this campaign, on the campaign trail I was constantly asked about civics and character education. 

At face value, this seems like a small issue, but, however, in the last year it was reported that young people between the ages of 18 and 29 in this country have a more favorable view of socialism than capitalism.  

And last week I read a story that said in 49 of 50 states a majority of residents would fail a U.S. citizenship test.  

Now I can’t help but feel that those two statistics are related.  

President Reagan said that freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.  

This demands answering an obvious question: How will our children know of our cherished American values if we don’t teach them?  

We all desire a more perfect union, but we cannot expect future generations to build upon the incredible progress our country has made if we fail to teach them the history and values that made it possible.  

So, let me say this: Whatever may be going on in other states or even going on in our nation’s capital, in this state, our children will be taught civics education, character formation and unapologetic American exceptionalism.  

We are beginning that effort by creating the governor’s civics instructional seal, which will recognize schools that excel at teaching civics education. 

Now I said there are four things we must do if we want to lead the nation. First, we build a better education system. The other three are not going to be quite this long. Second, we must build a criminal justice system that is tough, and smart, and, above all, just.  

For decades, this country has been too willing to fight crime on the surface alone — “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.”  

Now, in more ways than one, we are paying the price for that.  

Tennessee is currently incarcerating more people for longer than we ever have, and the population in our county jails is growing daily. 

In fact, at the bottom of this hill begins the most incarcerated ZIP code in America.

Incarceration can have a generational impact, too.  

Children with an incarcerated parent are at a greater risk of being incarcerated themselves.  

And beside the human cost, there’s the actual cost. 

Incarcerating an adult in Tennessee costs $28,000 a year of taxpayer money. 

And incarcerating a juvenile for a year can cost many times more than that.  

And for all the trouble and cost, what are our criminal justice outcomes?  

Violent crime is up. Recidivism is high. Jails are full and struggling to make ends meet.  

Let me be clear: The punishment for violent crime must be swift and severe, but we also must get better at helping those who will be released prepare to reenter society and not reenter prison. 

It’s past time that our state’s elected leaders speak with one voice on this important issue: When it comes to reforming our state’s justice system, the cost of doing nothing isn’t zero.  

Crime victims pay the price. Families pay the price. Taxpayers pay the price.  

In my proposal to the legislature this year, I’m recommending a series of smart reforms that will make a big difference.  

One area of reform my administration will address is our use of community supervision for low-risk offenders.  

Community supervision allows us to provide the corrections oversight necessary to hold someone accountable for their crime without incurring the economic and social cost of incarceration. 

It costs 20 times more to incarcerate someone than to put them under community supervision, and the latter actually leads to better outcomes.  

One of the first things we will do is add funds to the Electronic Monitoring Indigency Fund to add the use of GPS monitoring so that low-risk, nonviolent offenders can keep their jobs and provide for their families instead of spending unnecessary time in jail.  


A $750,000 one-time supplemental appropriation was made last spring from the 2018-19 budget to go toward the Electronic Monitoring Indigency Fund. — Natalie Allison, The Tennessean


Of those who are incarcerated, 95% are not serving a life sentence and they will eventually come out, and we need to be sure they are prepared for that.  

Why? Because every successful reentry means one less crime and one less victim. 

My commitment to having fewer crimes in this state is reflected in a proposed expansion of education and reentry counseling opportunities in our prisons.

Educational attainment for incarcerated people can reduce their risk of recidivism by 43%.  

Another important part of successful reentry is stable employment.  

For that reason, we have introduced a bill eliminating the expungement fees for those already eligible under the law to alleviate the cost and the burden of getting back on their feet.  


The governor did propose this legislation, which passed in both chambers and took effect in July, eliminating a $180 fee. That still doesn’t eliminate a $100 fee charged by county clerks, however, as part of the process. — Natalie Allison, The Tennessean


We must also take bold steps to stop the scourge of drugs illegally trafficked into our state.  

I pledged to make Tennessee a state that drug traffickers fear, and I will make sure that our prosecutors and our law enforcement have the tools that they need to make that a reality.  

We are increasing the penalties on dangerous drugs like fentanyl and making it clear that we will have no leniency on high-level drug dealers who target the residents of our state.  


An administration bill that passed both chambers and was signed into law increased penalties for possession of fentanyl, carfentanil and other fentanyl derivative drugs, changing penalties to a Class B felony for 15 grams or more and making 150 grams or more of fentanyl a Class A felony. 

Another bill makes the death penalty or life in prison sentences permissible in cases when a drug dealer is charged for a fentanyl overdose. — Natalie Allison, The Tennessean


And we need more than just strong laws to keep our communities safe; we also need strong law enforcement. 

It is no secret that Tennessee lags other states on law enforcement and corrections pay, which impacts our hiring and retention rates.  

We are increasing investments in correctional officer pay and training opportunities, and this budget calls for new investments in our law enforcement capacity, improving the in-service training pay supplement, providing new funding to support the increased demands of our Drug Overdose and Violent Crime Task Force.  


In addition to Lee’s recommendation of $15.6 million for increases to starting salaries for state correctional officers, the legislature also approved $5.5 million to raise salaries of veteran correctional officers and counselors. — Natalie Allison, The Tennessean


And furthermore, tomorrow morning, I will sign an executive order creating a task force to address the growing fiscal and social costs of incarceration.  


Lee’s criminal justice task force, which he announced during the 2019 State of the State, recommended in December new investments in mental health treatments that could divert people out of jail and prison. Administration officials said that would be a top priority.

The task force further recommended a rewrite of state sentencing laws in 2021. — Adam Tamburin, The Tennessean 


I appreciate the focus placed on the issues by our members of the legislature and by our Supreme Court in recent years, and it’s time to move even more forward in a comprehensive way. 

This task force will be led by Judge Brandon Gibson and my office and will include crime victims and their families, members of the General Assembly, state agencies, law enforcement, community and faith-based organizations and, yes, even former inmates.  

Fundamentally, this task force will recommend legislative and budgetary changes that will help reduce recidivism, make our communities safer and save tax dollars. 


Lee made criminal justice reform a cornerstone of his campaign for governor. It factored into his first year in office, although it remains to be seen how bold his work in that space will be.

In 2019, the governor eliminated state fees required for people to expunge eligible charges from their criminal records. He pushed long-sought raises through for correction officers. And he invested millions in education programs behind bars. He also loosened the applications for executive clemency so that more requests for mercy might make it to his desk.

Those incremental moves were cheered by advocates and state lawmakers from both parties, even as many of them urged Lee to push further. — Adam Tamburin, The Tennessean


I know we can do things differently because I’ve been involved with groups who have made a difference. 

Nonprofits like Men of Valor in Nashville are helping those who enter prison be better prepared to reenter society.

The recidivism rate of Men of Valor’s program graduates is less than one-third of the state’s average. 

One person who benefited from this group is a man named Marcus Martin. 

Marcus was incarcerated for five years. 

By his own admission, he was on a quick path back to prison, until he got involved with Men of Valor.  

Now, on the outside for 16 years, Marcus is a full-time prison minister, helping and making a huge impact on those still on the inside.  

Marcus Martin is with us here tonight, and I would like for us to recognize him. Marcus, please stand. 

Marcus, thank you for what you’re doing. 

My fellow Tennesseans, this is a story of redemption, this is a story of Tennesseans helping other Tennesseans. 

It’s also a story of fiscal responsibility and common sense.  

We need more of these stories, and when we get them, it won’t be surprising to see that our crime rate and our recidivism rates start going down. 

And my administration will do more than talk about how important these issues are. 

We intend to be national innovators and leaders in showing how people throughout our state — the Volunteer State — are willing to partner together to serve one another. 

Tonight, I’m proud to announce that we’re launching the Volunteer Mentorship Initiative to equip Tennesseans throughout our state to mentor fellow Tennesseans who are currently in prison. 

And I’m signing up tonight as the first volunteer.  

This initiative will begin by working with Tennessee-based nonprofits to pair degree-seeking inmates with mentors on the outside as they seek better opportunities for themselves during their time in prison and their first days back in their communities.  

I’m pleased to announce that Sen. Mike Bell and Rep. Michael Curcio have graciously agreed to be the honorary co-chairs of the Volunteer Mentorship Initiative. 

And I’m even more proud that every member of my senior staff has enthusiastically agreed to join this program as our first batch of mentors.

Tonight, I’m asking members of our General Assembly and every Tennessean who desires to prayerfully consider volunteering to join this effort.  

As our state has shown, we can change the course of history and the destiny of people when we step up, volunteer and serve one another.  

The challenge ahead of us is great, but the urgency of the situation is greater, and I know that we will rise to meet the challenge. 

For this issue, the admonition to we public servants is clear: Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.  

First, education. Second, justice. And third, every Tennessean should have access to high-quality health care that they can afford.  

This is an ambitious goal that no state has accomplished, and Tennessee will not accomplish it overnight. 

We will work with patients, providers and payers to establish Tennessee as a world-class health care market for our people using transparency and competition. 

To begin this process, I have asked our finance and administration commissioner, Stuart McWhorter, to chair a Health Care Modernization Task Force that will work closely with the private sector stakeholders, policymakers and communities across the state to develop a list of reforms and critical investments. 


This effort has begun, but it didn’t happen overnight. The governor did not empanel his Tennessee Health Care Modernization Task Force until October, and the group did not hold its first meeting until December. Instead of launching the task force earlier in the year, the Lee administration spent much of 2019 hosting a closed-door “listening tour” with lobbyists and health care groups, drawing transparency concerns from some groups that were excluded. The Health Care Modernization Task Force is expected to continue meeting in 2020, but it is unclear when it will recommend any reforms. — Brett Kelman, The Tennessean


In the short term, there are several things we can do to move Tennessee toward having better health outcomes.  

So that more uninsured Tennesseans have access to quality primary and preventative care services, we’re providing additional funding to our health care safety net, which supports community and faith-based care centers serving those who do not have health insurance coverage. 


The state government increased funding for the health care safety net by $3.5 million last year, according to governor’s spokesman Gillum Ferguson. Of that increase, $2 million was a recurring increase requested by the governor, Ferguson said. — Brett Kelman, The Tennessean


And we will continue to work with the General Assembly and with Washington to look for waiver opportunities that help us increase insurance coverage without big government strings attached. 


The Lee administration attempted its most ambitious health care ideas in this arena, but it remains to be seen if the efforts will pay off. Last fall, TennCare unveiled plans to convert billions in federal funding to a block grant, which would give state officials more authority over how to run the Medicaid program. Potentially, the block grant may allow the state government to run TennCare at a lower cost, then repurpose some leftover funding to expand coverage to more Tennesseans. As of now, it remains to be seen if the federal government will approve the block grant, if TennCare will save any money under the block grant or if that money will be used to expand coverage. — Brett Kelman, The Tennessean


We’ll also be exploring ways to build off the important efforts of the Trump administration to promote price transparency. 


The Trump administration’s efforts to force hospitals to reveal their prices has been challenged in federal court, so the Lee administration has had little to build off of so far. Governor’s spokesman Gillum Ferguson said the Lee administration hasn’t pursued any major transparency reforms yet, but it remains a priority this year and will likely be tackled by the Health Care Modernization Task Force. — Brett Kelman, The Tennessean


Another way to lower health care costs is to combat Medicaid fraud. 

Tackling fraud in Medicaid is particularly important as we work to prevent the fraudulent distribution of opioid medications.

To support that effort, we’re creating 24 new positions in the state’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit. 

Together these efforts will place downward pressure on the cost of coverage.  

And I’m also committed to working with our rural communities to ensure that they have quality health care that meets their current and future needs.  

Despite the closure of rural hospitals across the state and country, there are many opportunities to transform care in these communities through smart reforms, increased innovation and a new business model.  

Addressing these challenges requires a long-term approach, and we’ve already taken steps that will deliver real progress this year. 

For one, I’m proposing $20 million to boost broadband accessibility, which will make technology like telemedicine more accessible and practical. 


In 2017, former Gov. Bill Haslam outlined a three-year proposal that would dedicate $30 million in grants and $15 million in tax credits to encourage the expansion of broadband in Tennessee. That year, Haslam’s budget allocated $10.3 million for the effort, followed by an additional $15 million in the governor’s final year in office. After entering office last year, Lee largely followed through with Haslam’s broadband plan, setting aside $20 million for the effort. The tax credit, however, was repealed by the legislature during the 2019 session. 

So far, 22 grants have been awarded, with a third round of grants set to be announced in the spring. To date, grants awarded have provided 34,000 Tennesseans or more than 13,000 previously unserved homes and business with high-speed internet, according to the state. — Joel Ebert, The Tennessean———————————————————————————————————————

We are increasing, by as much as $8.6 million, funding for graduate medical education at Tennessee’s medical schools and critical incentive programs that will provide financial support to resident physicians who commit to living and working in rural communities.  


Lee’s budget technically dedicated $8.6 million toward the state’s Graduate Medical Education program, which seeks to bolster the number of primary care providers in underserved areas. But of the $8.6 million, the state is providing only $3 million. The remainder — $5.6 million — is provided by the federal government. — Joel Ebert, The Tennessean———————————————————————————————————————

By increasing the supply of care that reflects the needs of rural communities we’ll be driving down the overall cost of care.  

Our focus on economic development and vocational education will also drive better health outcomes as individuals are increasingly able to get higher-paying jobs that provide greater stability and access to coverage. 

And too often, the conversation around health care focuses exclusively on physical health. 

Physical well-being is important, but a national conversation around mental and behavioral health is long overdue. 

Nearly 300,000 Tennesseans are facing serious mental health challenges, and far too many are slipping through the cracks.  

I made a vow on the campaign trail to strengthen the mental health safety net, and I intend to do just that.  

In this budget, I am recommending an increase of $11 million in recurring funds to our Behavioral Health Safety Net and our Regional Mental Health Institutes.  

These investments will help us serve thousands more of our most vulnerable Tennesseans, most of which do not currently have health insurance. 


The $11 million Lee recommended was split between the two programs the governor mentioned, the Behavioral Health Safety Net and the Regional Mental Health Institutes. The administration set aside $5 million for the Behavioral Health Safety Net, which provides mental health services to people who are uninsured, underinsured or can’t afford it.

For the Regional Mental Health Institutes, the governor provided $6.1 million to be divvied up between three of the state’s four facilities, which have a cumulative 577 beds.

The Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute received $3.7 million, and Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute in Chattanooga was given $1.6 million. Memphis Mental Health Institute, which is the smallest of the four, with 55 beds, despite the city being the state’s second most populated, received roughly $804,000.

Unlike the other three, Western Mental Health Institute, which is in Bolivar and has 150 beds, received $64,000 less than the previous budget.

The funding for the various mental health institutes comes as Tennesseans struggle with access to facilities. — Joel Ebert, The Tennessean———————————————————————————————————————

Tennessee’s suicide rate is 20% higher than the national average. 

And for that reason, I’m proposing a $1.1 million investment that will expand the state’s partnership with the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network to establish a new regional outreach model and increase the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services’ effect. 


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tennessee’s suicide rate in 2017 was 16.8 suicides per 100,000 people. The nationwide suicide rate that year was 14 suicides per 100,000 people. That means the state’s rate is in fact 20% higher than the national rate.

According to the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, a nonprofit that works with the state, Tennessee’s suicide rate in 2017 was 17.3 per 100,000, compared with the United States’ 14.5. The network said the state’s 2017 suicide rate was the highest recorded in the last 35 years.

State data from 2018, which is the most recent available, indicates the suicide rate was 17.1 per 100,000 people. That was down from 2017, when the Tennessee Department of Health reported a rate of 17.3 suicides per 100,000.

Lee’s 2019 budget called for allocating $625,000 (recurring) to expand the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network. An additional $500,000 (recurring) “will be used to expand and enhance suicide prevention and mental health awareness and promotion activities. These funds will also be appropriated to the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.” — Joel Ebert, The Tennessean


To truly be champions of mental and behavioral health, we must put everything we have behind defeating the opioid crisis in Tennessee once and for all. 

We must continue to make progress in preventing addiction, and I will defend the smart limits on prescriptions passed by this legislature. 

In this budget, we’ll also work to address the other victims of the opioid crisis: the dependent children of those addicted.  

We recommend expanding our investment in the Safe Baby Courts initiative to support vulnerable infants and are including $5 million in new funding to address a rising caseload in our Department of Children’s Services.

Also, as we begin to see an increasing rise of students entering kindergarten facing challenges from prenatal drug use, I recommend that we invest an additional $6 million in our early intervention services for schools. 

These investments will make Tennessee a healthier state, and when we’re healthier it’s good for Tennesseans and it’s good for the bottom line. 

Fourth and finally, when we have accomplished these and many other goals, what remains expected of us is that government be operated with integrity, effectiveness and with as little cost as possible. 

Fundamentally, we believe that government exists to protect our liberties — not to grant favors, or to build kingdoms, and to needlessly interfere with the lives of citizens. 

To be sure, the voters did not send us here to create more government. 

No, they sent us here to protect their freedoms and to protect their hard-earned money. 

I have long believed that Tennessee’s most precious natural resource is our people.  

Many of our people can be found at nonprofits all across this state who are doing the work with excellence that government cannot or should not do. 

So, to help protect taxpayer dollars and to engage some of our under-utilized citizens, one announcement that I’m particularly excited to make is the Governor’s Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives.

This office will leverage the nonprofit community and help us unleash the potential of all Tennesseans to get involved to not only make the lives better for their fellow citizens but to reduce the responsibility and ultimately the size of government. 


In his first year in office, Lee launched the Governor’s Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives and appointed Dave Worland to serve as its first executive director. Worland, who lives in Chattanooga, has 30 years of nonprofit leadership experience and is an elder of his church, Rock Creek Fellowship, according to the office’s website.

The mission of the office includes building connections within and across sectors working and serving in the state. The office also emails out a daily prayer newsletter. — Holly Meyer, The Tennessean   


I’d like to close with two short stories. 

This last month we’ve seen record rainfall all across our state. 

Many areas have flooded and still are, others have dealt with mudslides, and water treatment plants have failed, and some of our neighbors have lost their loved ones. 

And our hearts are with those hurting families, and with all others who are still cleaning up, even tonight. 

And we’re grateful to the first responders, and state employees, and everyday citizens who went out there during the storms and supported that cleanup. 

A few weeks ago, amid some scary moments, one state employee jumped in to help. 

When the flooding started in Dickson County, Lt. Travis Plotzer of the Tennessee Highway Patrol was at a flooded roadway on Highway 48. 

He went in to chest-deep water to help rescue motorists stranded on top of their vehicles. 

He didn’t hesitate to be the first one to help. 

He showed what it really means to be a public servant; he showed what it really means to be a leader. 

Please join me in recognizing Lt. Travis Plotzer from Dickson County. 

Last month, for the first time in 35 years, I missed our annual all-employee gathering because for 35 years prior to becoming governor, I worked in a family-owned company that I led for 20 years.

I missed that gathering year for the first time — last month for the first time — and it was bittersweet. 

But on that very same day, Maria and I had the privilege to host at our new home the Governor’s Excellence in Service Award winners from each of Tennessee’s 23 departments. 

We went around the room and listened as each one introduced themselves and explained their jobs, but what struck me most was not what they did, but the passion with which they did it. 

Those dedicated individuals and others like them that I’ve met since remind me that government itself is not a solution to our problems; “we the people” must solve our own problems. 

And while our state government is far from perfect, one thing I have learned during my first two months in office is that Tennessee has the most committed, hardworking group of state employees in the country, and I am proud to be serving alongside them.  

As my daughter Jessica and I neared the end of our climb on the Grand Teton, we came to a place that’s famous for its very narrow ledge. 

To make it worse, there’s a section in part of the ledge that has a 1,000-foot “exposure,” which is evidently climber-speak for a 1,000-foot fall if you take a wrong step.  

The point is, the only way to get across it was to set your face forward against the mountain and step sideways across the gap — and whatever you do, don’t look down. 

As a state, we find ourselves in a very strong position, with a very nice view. 

We can choose to stay right here and enjoy it, or we can choose to step across the ledge and move to higher, better ground. 

But if we decide to go higher and farther, we must resolve to not look back and not look down.  

If we lead Tennessee well, Tennessee may well lead the nation.  

And my prayer is that we will all work together to do just that. 

May God bless you, and may God bless the great state of Tennessee.  

Thank you.


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