NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Choruses of applause, cheers and handshakes greeted Tennessee Governor Bill Lee for his fifth State of the State Address to the Tennessee General Assembly.
"The state of our beloved state is prosperous, hopeful, and unrivaled," said Lee.
Now the question becomes: will all of his proposals be welcomed as warmly?
When it comes to improving Tennessee traffic, the Governor pledged new funding and a new concept for the state.
"We’re proposing an additional $3 billion to build roads in all three Grand Divisions," said Governor Lee.
The Governor wants to steer the state into choice lanes, a public-private partnership that would pave additional lanes on the sides of interstates near Tennessee's biggest cities. It would give drivers the option to bypass traffic if they're willing to pay a fee.
"And hear me when I say this: toll roads are not on the table. We’re talking about choice lanes, public-private partnerships," said Lee.
On the topic of education, he gave teachers a reason to cheer, at least by the year 2027.
"We are proposing legislation that, if it passes, will increase the minimum teacher pay, by the time I leave office, to $50,000," said the Governor.
But Lee also defended some of his more controversial plans for Tennessee public schools, like his school choice plan for Nashville and Memphis along with the third-grade retention law.
"We know the worst thing we can do for a child’s success is push them to the next level when they’re simply not ready," said Lee.
Several members of his own party have submitted bills that would change the new law passed last year, which requires third graders to repeat the grade if their TCAP reading scores are too low.
"The ability to read at grade level can determine a child’s future. Our approach is about providing additional support so that every student is set up for success, in the classroom and beyond," said Lee.
Lee also proposed more funding to create new or renovate existing TCAT buildings, or Tennessee College of Applied Technology.
"Our goal is to train 10,000 new skilled workers a year. To achieve this, we’re proposing $1 billion in this budget — the largest investment in our technical colleges in state history," said Lee.
The biggest fireworks of the night came when Governor Lee addressed abortion access in Tennessee.
"Pro-life is much more than defending the lives of the unborn. This is not a matter of politics. This is about human dignity," said Lee.
But as he tried to deliver those lines, three women up in the gallery shouted at the Governor before being whisked away by troopers.
"Civility is not a weakness, by the way; it is a strength," said Lee, as the women were being removed from the chamber.
Several Republicans have filed legislation that would amend Tennessee's no-exception abortion law to allow for rape and incest of the mother, but the legislation levies strict penalties against women found to be lying about their situation in order to receive an abortion. Lee has previously indicated he supports the current law as it stands.
The Governor touted his Violent Crime Intervention Grant Fund that he introduced last year and proposed another $50 million to keep that program going. He also pledged to increase the roles of the THP and TBI forensic scientist teams.
"We added 100 Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers in the budget last year. This year, again, we’re adding 100 more troopers," said Lee. "Ahead of this budget, we worked with the General Assembly to create 25 new forensic lab positions to help the TBI reduce the turnaround time for test kits."
Lee also addressed the crisis at DCS that has been reported on thoroughly by NewsChannel 5 Investigates' Ben Hall.
"With Commissioner Quin at the helm, we’ve already hired dozens of new, qualified caseworkers. DCS caseworkers have an incredibly difficult job, and they deserve our support," said Gov. Lee.
The Governor also made news by proposing the creation of four new state parks, paid family leave for state employees, and a grocery store sales tax holiday. Last year, the state approved a one-month holiday during the month of August. This year, the governor wants it to last three consecutive months.
Of course, all of these ideas will have to be approved by the Tennessee General Assembly.