Gov. Bill Lee breaks little new ground in State of the State

Budget includes funds for transportation, crisis pregnancy centers, and children’s services

By: and - February 7, 2023 6:04 am
Gov. Bill Lee enters the Tennessee House of Representatives Chambers to deliver his fifth State of the State Address on Feb. 6, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Gov. Bill Lee enters the Tennessee House of Representatives Chambers to deliver his fifth State of the State Address on Feb. 6, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Gov. Bill Lee broke little new ground nor dropped any policy changes in his fifth State of the State address Monday, choosing to highlight issues he has discussed for months and in some cases, years  —  including a transportation plan that would include “toll” roads for motorists who want to bypass congestion, a boost to the state’s rainy day fund, additional funds to address ongoing crises at the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, and funding for crisis pregnancy centers.

“And hear me when I say this: toll roads are not on the table,” said Lee of his Transportation Modernization Act. “We’re talking about choice lanes, public-private partnerships, new delivery models – solutions that have worked for states across the country, including our friends in Texas and Florida.” 

Lee introduced his transportation plan in early December and immediately caught flak from lawmakers over the choice roads portion, which will be added to existing routes and will cost drivers an extra fee to use. 

To kick off implementation of the transportation plan, about which few details have been provided, Lee announced he will inject $3 billion across the state for road projects and $300 million into Tennessee’s local highway fund. 

Lee also claimed success for a modified block grant program to support TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program, saying it will reap $300 million in shared savings the first year. 

In the portion of Lee’s speech devoted to “strong families,” he said that “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.” 

He will designate $100 million to crisis pregnancy centers in the wake of the state’s abortion ban that followed the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that reversed federal protections for abortion. 

In 2022, Lee gave money to crisis pregnancy centers to purchase ultrasound machines. On Monday, he said this year’s funds will be used to partner with nonprofits “that serve mothers, fathers, and families during a crisis pregnancy,” in conjunction with the Governor’s Office of Faith-based Initiatives.”

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, are sponsoring a bill in the Legislature that gives the Office of Faith-based Initiatives more power. 

SB0279 removes prohibitions that require nonprofit partners of the office to cover expenses incurred in the course of the partnership as well as removing language that the state not incur extra cost resulting from the Faith-Based Initiatives office.

Democrats were quick to respond to Lee’s speech. 

“Instead of leading our state into the 21st century by investing in people and working families, Tennessee is only maintaining the status quo,” said Sen. London Lamar of Memphis, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus. “We are not leading the nation as long as we have abused children sleeping on the floors of state office buildings. We’re not leading the nation if our families don’t have access to affordable housing, health coverage or childcare.”

Memphis Sen. Raumesh Akbari, Senate Minority Leader, said, “We are glad to see an emphasis on tax cuts for small business owners, the conservation of our natural resources, and some targeted investments in maternity care, children and state workers.

“But most of the new money in this budget is long overdue. They’re putting out fires that have been growing for a decade. State government has to break its bad habit of waiting until a crisis emerges to make meaningful change,” Akbari said.

Unlike the last few years, which have featured large protests before and during the gubernatorial address, Monday’s event was only disrupted once when three women in the House of Representative gallery shouted “White nationalism is our biggest threat. Gov. Bill Lee is our biggest threat,” before being escorted out by Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers. 

Lee also announced he will extend a holiday on grocery sales tax to three months from one month and that he will designate $50 million to create a Nuclear Fast Track fund, intended to recruit companies to establish an “ecosystem” for nuclear development and manufacturing.

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Holly McCall
Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.

Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.