KNOXVILLE, Tenn — Governor Bill Lee delivered the annual State of the State address on Monday, Feb. 6 at 7 p.m. The theme of the address was "Tennessee: Leading the Nation."
Lee praised his efforts across several issues he bundles together as "opportunities for Tennesseans." These include investments in education, school safety and the workforce.
Transportation around the state
Lee discussed improving roads and bridges. The governor said that the state is behind on transportation projects.
"Right now, there’s a $26 billion backlog of projects across the state. Simply put, we are way behind, and we have to change the way we fund and build our roads and bridges," Lee said.
However, Lee said he does not want the state to go into debt, or taxes to raise as a result of this backlog. The governor proposed a different kind of idea to bring in money for the roadways.
"I’m introducing the Transportation Modernization Act–a plan to engage public-private partnerships to build additional choice lanes on urban highways, to ensure electric vehicle owners pay their share in maintaining our roads, and to provide a delivery model that builds rural and urban projects faster, all without the burden falling on Tennessee taxpayers," Lee said.
He said toll roads are not on the table. Instead, Lee proposed allocating $3 billion to build "choice lanes," and other new roadways in the state's Grand Divisions which include Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville.
He also planned to propose an additional $3 billion to the Tennessee Department of Transportation, so the department could build new roads across Tennessee. He also said he plans to propose $300 million to the local highway program, to help communities build and maintain their own roads.
Lee affirmed the state's ban on abortion. However, he noted that there is room for debate over policy specifics. This comes as many Tennesseans push for exceptions to the law.
"Pro-life is much more than defending the lives of the unborn. This is not a matter of politics. This is about human dignity. We can have a healthy debate about the policy specifics, but we can also agree that America is rooted in a commitment to human dignity," Lee said.
He also said that he plans to propose covering the cost of diapers during the first two years of a baby's life for mothers on TennCare. He said it would be the first state to implement a Medicaid program covering those costs. The USDA estimated that it cost around $12,980 per year in 2015 to raise a child. The Institute for Research on Poverty estimated it costs around $100 per month to buy diapers for a child.
Education in Tennessee
One of his promises included spending around $125 million on new teacher raises—increasing minimum teacher pay to $50,000.
“When I came into office, the minimum pay for teachers was set at $35,000. We are proposing legislation that, if it passes, will increase the minimum teacher pay, by the time I leave office, to $50,000," Lee said.
Gov. Lee also said he planned to reintroduce a paid parental leave program for state employees, while also prioritizing "new literacy programs, from tutoring to summer camps."
Possible return of the grocery tax-free period
Lee said he wants to bring back the grocery tax-free period and extend it from one month to three months.
“Last August, we gave Tennessee families a one-month break from grocery taxes, to provide relief amid nationwide inflation. We should do that again this year, but let’s extend it to three consecutive months,” Lee said.
Protecting Tennessee's environment
Lee also spoke about the state's environment. He said he planned to propose spending $50 million to recruit companies that will establish a nuclear development and manufacturing ecosystem.
"I’m proposing $50 million in a Nuclear Fast Track fund to recruit companies to our state that will specifically establish a nuclear development and manufacturing ecosystem built for the future of Tennessee," Lee said.
He also said he planned to revitalize all "brown sites" in Tennessee, restoring them for economic development.
Lee wants to improve and expand three additional state natural areas, build two new park lodges, complete four more outdoor trails and create four new state parks.
House Democratic Leader Karen Camper (D-Memphis) delivered a prebuttal to the State of the State on Friday, calling on Lee to reject division politics and to push for bipartisan solutions on affordable healthcare, police brutality reform, regional transportation solutions, tax cuts for working families instead of businesses, fixing the Department of Children's Services, paid family leave, increasing the state's minimum wage, and other issues.
"Cities like, Memphis and Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga, Murfreesboro and Clarksville, these are world-class cities and great places to live and raise a family," Camper said. "Let’s make sure our cities have the resources and freedom they deserve to develop their metro areas into communities, not hampered by congestion, but bustling with movement and opportunity."