NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov. Bill Lee says education will be one of his top priorities in 2020. The governor unveiled his legislative agenda - as well as his budget during his second annual State of the State address on Monday.
Lee focused on education, announcing a $400 million increase to the state's education budget. That includes more than $117 million for teacher pay raises, an increase in literacy spending and more money for the Basic Education Program - the formula Tennessee uses to fund schools. Lee also proposed the creation of a $250 million K-12 Mental Health Trust Fund, which will place mental health support services to the state's most-at-risk schools.
"No teacher I know does it only for the money, but you and I know a worker is worthy of their pay. Teaching is a calling. We know it is passion that brings teachers to the classroom, but we also know our teachers deserve to be paid more for the important work they do," said Lee during the address.
Lee said in the next few years, the state will increase teacher pay so that no teacher will make less than $40,000.
"Make no mistake: we will do whatever it takes to make Tennessee the best state in America to be a student, and that means making Tennessee the best state in America to be a teacher. That means better pay, as we’ve said, but it also means better training and professional support, so that our teachers can perform at the top of their trade."
He also announced the expansion of the Department of Mental Health's behavioral liaison program from 35 counties to 95 counties.
On top of those additions, the state budget has $100 million in grants going to one-time improvement projects in every county across the state. The money could be used toward projects like roads or bridges.
The governor also committed an additional $14 million to the controversial Education Savings Account program that the state is trying to start a year early.
Rural areas would benefit from business development grants as well as $25 million dedicated towards the development of broadband infrastructure.
Lee has worked to invest in the state's workforce development, but he said not enough of the jobs were in distressed or rural counties. Therefore, he wants the Department of Economic and Community Development to restructure the state's incentive package for companies to consider locating in our 15 distressed counties and 24 at-risk counties.
"In 2019, we were for the first time named the #1 best fiscally managed state in the country. We’ve been named as the best business climate in the country. We’re #1 in the U.S. for advanced industry job growth and the best state for small business growth. In the past year, this state has garnered 108 project commitments to create 16,500 jobs and $3.6 billion of capital investment in Tennessee. And while we still have more work to do on rural economic development, I’m also proud that more than half of these projects have been announced in rural counties."
When it comes to the budget, Lee pledged to continue in the direction of conservative fiscal management. He brought up a proposal to cut the professional privilege tax in half and return $40 million to people and small business owners "who every year pay this arbitrary and unfair tax."
He wants $100 million to go toward local government grants to be divided among every county and municipality across the state, as well as an additional $50 million contribution into the state's Rainy-Day Fund.
Criminal justice reform has been a focus of Lee's administration.
In this next year, he wants to increase the penalties associated with the left of firearms and reckless endangerment of a police officer or first responder. Lee also plans to propose legislation to improve probation and parole systems based on recommendations from the Criminal Justice Investment Task Force.
"We’re making these investments because, as our state’s elected leaders, we must remain aware of serving every part and every person of our state. That’s why I’ve made criminal justice reform such a large priority, because every person in Tennessee wants and deserves to live in a safe neighborhood. When properly implemented, criminal justice reforms save taxpayer dollars, shrink the size of government, properly punish wrongdoers, and make our communities safer."