Gov. Bill Lee addressing legislator’s during the January 2021 special education session. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Just over two years ago, Bill Lee became governor of Tennessee. So at this midway point in his first term, it’s fair to review his inaugural promises and assess what’s been successful since his election and what has failed.
To make a fair assessment, I watched his 15-minute inauguration speech from Jan. 19, 2019.
In that speech, Lee didn’t lay out a lot of specific goals. According to news coverage from that day, he “called on the state to remember the poor and struggling.”
He lauded Tennessee for our economic success and skill at attracting companies and jobs but noted “15 rural counties in poverty, the violent crime plaguing some urban neighborhoods, an ongoing opioid epidemic and those who can’t afford health care.”
Lee said education is “much more than a test score,” and called for a resurgence of vocational, technical and agricultural education. He said we should use the power of government to help non-violent offenders re-enter society and not reoffend and return to prison.
Let’s break down Lee’s legislation on education, health care and criminal justice reform.
In 2019, a bill to establish Education Savings Accounts, colloquially known as ‘school vouchers’, passed both chambers of the General Assembly but not without — and this may be underestimating the issue — great controversy.
The program was only applicable in Shelby and Davidson Counties and gave parents the ability to use up to $7,300 in taxable income to send a child to a private school.
Then-Speaker of the House Glen Casada personally led the fight in the House of Representatives, no doubt hoping to deliver Lee’s signature legislation. Deliver he did. When the vote was deadlocked, Casada held the vote open and called several members out of chambers. Votes flipped, the legislation passed, but some of those legislators claimed they were offered incentives to change their votes.
Since the controversial vote, a Nashville judge struck down the voucher legislation as unconstitutional for targeting only two counties in the state. An appeals court upheld the decision in September, meaning school vouchers are dead in the water. That’s a big loss for Lee.
Lee recently called a week-long special legislative session to address education and literacy, but the chief piece of legislation for which the session will be remembered isn’t helping kids read, but for threatening to withhold state funds from Shelby County and Nashville schools for virtual schooling during the pandemic.
Lee, who has often cited a group that works with men released from prison, used the power of executive order to establish a criminal justice task force shortly after taking office but has achieved little else to reform criminal justice. One partial success was his signing into law legislation that got rid of a fee to have charges expunged from one’s record. The state no longer charges for expungement but county clerk’s office do.
However, the task force has failed to gain much traction — to be fair, the stop-and-start pandemic legislative session didn’t help — and no meaningful legislation has been enacted to improve the justice system. The most notable piece of legislation passed during a special session in August 2020 targeted protesters at the Tennessee Capitol, making camping on state property a Class E felony.
An interim report prepared by the committee, which sunsets in July, reported Class E felonies, the lowest level of felony, account for the greatest number of people in Tennessee prisons. Arguably, the anti-protest law could add more people to Tennessee’s prison population, rather than reducing it, as Lee pledged.
He has issued no pardons to prisoners on Tennessee’s Death Row.
Tennessee is one of only 12 states in the nation that has refused to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid, at a loss to the state of $1.4 billion per year. The expansion was made possible by the Affordable Care Act and Lee was up front during his campaign, saying “Obamacare will not expand under my watch.”
But Lee has made no other progress to provide health insurance to the roughly 450,000 Tennesseans lacking it.
The legislature voted to approve a health care block grant the outgoing Trump administration signed off on days before Joe Biden took office as president. Block grant critics point out these grants provide a fixed amount of money — a block — to cover health care costs for those eligible for Medicaid and can limit what sort of coverage patients get.
Tennessee is the only state to have passed a block grant program and the Kaiser Family Foundation refers to the plan as a “10-year experiment.”
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a Democrat representing Nashville’s 5th District, almost immediately asked the Biden administration to rescind the block grant. His request was followed by a similar letter from the state House Democratic Caucus and it’s almost guaranteed Biden will take steps to shoot the block grant down.
In short, Lee has failed to make progress in education or healthcare — and that’s without even touching on his lax handling of the COVID-19 pandemic — and minimal progress with criminal justice reform. Given Lee has a enviable supermajority Republican House and Senate, his lack of success is astonishing.
With gubernatorial campaigns set to start in another year, Lee is vulnerable from both the left and right. Statewide races have proven impossible for Democrats to win in the last few cycles, but a candidate like outspoken and popular state Rep. Gloria Johnson would fire up the Democratic base.
And while Democrats view Lee as an evangelical conservative, he’s sure to face primary competition from those further right in the Republican Party who think he’s catered to liberals by even letting county mayors issue mask mandates. Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles, the former head of Tennesseans For Prosperity, and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs are names that surface in conversations about a GOP primary challenge.
“Government is not the answer to our challenges,” said Lee when he took office. So far in his term, Tennessee government hasn’t adequately answered any challenge.
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