Monday night, I switched on Facebook to watch Gov. Bill Lee’s third State of the State address. There’s much which I disagree with Lee on but having read a preview of the speech, I felt confident I at least knew what to expect going in. 

Sure — we are mid-COVID-19 pandemic and Lee had already signalled his support for a bill that would enable gun purchases without the buyer getting so much as a permit. It’s a dangerous bill, but I was prepared, for there’s rarely a legislative session that doesn’t feature at least one misguided bill that makes it easier to shoot people. 

But still, Lee managed to leave me wondering how I live in the same state as him, for his perception of reality is a vastly different alternative one from mine.

Gov. Bill Lee. (Photo: John Partipilo)

In much the same way as I recently analyzed Lee’s work at the midpoint of his first term, so will I dissect his State of the State, which mixed facts with omissions. 

Lee began with an accurate synopsis of 2020, calling it “an unimaginable one for us that included the rise of a global pandemic. Devastating tornadoes, flooding, violence, unrest, economic collapse. Witnessing our nation undergo painful turmoil at the highest level of government.” 

He failed to note his own role in fueling rumors that led to that turmoil: Lee refused to recognize Joe Biden as the lawfully elected president until 11 days before Biden was inaugurated. 

My astonishment set in early in Lee’s speech, shortly after the niceties and howdy-dos ended, when Lee congratulated himself and his administration for the grand job they have done managing the COVID-19 pandemic in Tennessee. 

Lee accurately stated that Tennessee doubled down on testing, offering it to everyone regardless of their symptoms. He also said the state has led on distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently disputed.

But then, the governor diverged from reality.

“You may remember the last time I addressed Tennessee was right before Christmas – there was more pressure than ever to implement mandates and lockdown but we trusted our people and encouraged them to gather differently,” said Lee, referring to a seven-minute Facebook live performance. “It helped us blunt a post-holiday surge.’’

In one sense, he was right: Tennessee already led the country in COVID-19 cases, a trend that carried on after his Dec. 20 speech. When you lead in illness for weeks at a time, you only have the option to trend downward, but it’s a tough sell to term that success. 

Lee referenced ‘painful turmoil at the highest level of government,’ while failing to note he refused to acknowledge President Joe Biden’s election until 11 days before inauguration, and Lee continued to insinuate voter fraud took place in other states.

Lee then moved on to address the state’s economic climate, saying Tennessee’s response to COVID-19 has been effective and many sectors of the state economy are roaring. 

In much the same way he noted COVID-19 rates dropped, Lee noted the unemployment rate has dropped from a high of 15.5% to 6.4%.  While below the national average, the rate increased from November to December. And he failed to discuss the Godawful mess the state’s unemployment system has been. A Tennessean reporter recently documented his own troubles with filing for unemployment during a company-wide furlough.

Moving on to the recent extraordinary session devoted to education, Lee noted the legislature approved $43 million for teacher pay raises — that works out to a 2% pay raise — and that he’s asking for another $160 million for education in his budget for the upcoming year. 

Democratic state Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, an outspoken critic of Lee and a longtime educator, posted a Twitter thread laying out what little impact that amount of money will have on education and told Chalkbeat a 2% raise was an insult akin to tipping a waiter a few cents. 

Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Through the remainder of his speech, Lee hit all the right-wing talking points. He touted a controversial and experimental healthcare block grant Tennessee pursued from the outgoing Trump Administration rather than taking billions of dollars allotted to the state in Medicaid expansion. He implied election fraud took place during the 2020 presidential election in other states, saying “If every state ran their elections the way Tennessee does, there’d be no delays and no scandal.”

Lee said he’s strongly pro-life, but introduced his support of a bill to allow permitless gun carry by saying by saying “Now more than ever, Tennesseans want a strong commitment to the Second Amendment and the right to protect themselves.” In fact, statistics show that states that have weakened their permitting system have an 11% increase in murder by handguns.

I’ll give Lee credit for the good in his address, like his announced initiative to get high-speed broadband throughout the state, but too much of his speech included issues of no importance to many Tennesseans and a misguided sense of what is important.

Of the past year, Lee said Tennessee needs to “move forward but work to make sense of it all.” I’m still trying to make sense of his alternate reality.