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Governor emphasizes fiscal responsibility and education in State of the State address

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By: Senator Page Walley

Governor Bill Lee recently delivered his sixth State of the State address. The next morning, our Senate Finance Ways and Means Committee, of which I am a member, was presented with a more detailed overview of Lee’s 2024 budget proposal by Department of Finance and Administration Commissioner Jim Bryson.
Legacy of fiscal responsibility
In his speech, Gov. Lee credited the General Assembly’s unwavering commitment to fiscal responsibility as the reason for the state’s firm financial foundation. After years of extraordinary revenue growth, revenues are slowing. However, because of consistent conservative budgeting, Tennessee is well-positioned to continue its record of fiscal responsibility with a balanced budget, healthy savings and tax cuts.
Lee touted Tennessee’s economic growth calling Tennessee “an economic powerhouse for this country.”
“Over the past five years, Tennessee has been ranked as the fastest-growing economy of all 50 states, the number one state for fiscal stability, a top state for business, the second lowest-taxed state per capita, and the lowest debt state in America,” said Lee. “Any state would envy the position that we’ve been in.”
Investing in Education
Once again, Education is a top priority for Gov. Lee this year. In the speech, Lee underscored his focus on improving the state’s public schools, but also continues to promote an expansion of the voucher pilot project to fund private school tuition with state tax dollars. That expansion, which is expected to cost $141 million this year alone, is something that I perceive as not in the best interest of our state’s fiscal challenges or our public school students.
Notable education highlights in Lee’s 2024 proposed budget include:
Public Education Investments
More than $261 million to strengthen education through the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement (TISA) formula growth, including teacher pay raises
$30 million for summer learning programs to support students between school years
$3.2 million dedicated to AP Access for All, which provides AP courses to students across rural and urban Tennessee
$2.5 million to strengthen students’ reading and phonics skills
$577,000 to ensure we train Tennessee teachers to be the best and brightest educators of Tennessee children
$15 million to fund charter school facility improvements
Advancing Rural and Mental Health
Gov. Lee also announced a plan to spend $208 million over the next five years to support rural healthcare based on recommendations from the governor’s Rural Healthcare Task Force formed in 2021. If approved, this would be the single largest investment in rural healthcare in state history. The significant funds are a result of Tennessee’s successful one-of-a-kind TennCare waiver, which allows TennCare to recoup savings as a result of increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the TennCare program.
The $208 million would be used to strengthen rural health by investing in apprenticeships and skilled training, provide greater access to specialty care and telemedicine, improve career pathways, establish hospital and physician practice grants, and create a new Center of Excellence to sustain and expand rural health support.
Lee also proposed to use more than $100 million from shared TennCare savings, to invest in behavioral health and substance abuse support in Tennessee over the next five years.
Prioritizing Public Safety
Over the last few years, lawmakers have worked closely with Gov. Lee to prioritize major investments to keep Tennessee communities safe. Gov. Lee announced he’s continuing his commitment to that shared priority by proposing funding for 200 new Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers, with an additional 60 trooper positions starting this year.
Lee also thanked the General Assembly for their work to combat violent crime and improve school safety. He touted the importance of the new $150 million investment in the Violent Crime Intervention Fund which is enabling partnerships with local governments to help places like Shelby County. Lee also reflected on the horrible tragedy at Covenant School last year, which prompted a strong response to enhance the school safety legislation being considered at the time. Following the tragedy, lawmakers and Gov. Lee created a $140 million grant to place a trained, armed school resource officer in every Tennessee public school.
Preserving Outdoor Heritage
Lee proposed big plans to continue efforts to preserve Tennessee’s natural beauty and outdoor heritage for generations to come. These proposed investments include:
$63 million to create four new Tennessee State Parks
$20 million to expand blueway trail access, which will drive tourism and economic activity across our rural communities
$20 million to improve water quality at rivers, lakes and streams across the state, making them safe for future generations to enjoy and the Bill Dance Signature Lakes Fishing Trail
$25 million to establish the Farmland Conservation Fund, partnering with farmers to place a conservation easement on their land to preserve and protect Tennessee for future generations
$5 million to protect and enhance scenic beauty along our major highways
$3 million for Access 2030 to make Tennessee State Parks accessible to Tennesseans with disabilities
In brief, my legislation passed to give victims of human trafficking an opportunity for redemption – With a rare 33-0 vote, I was pleased to pass a bill in our State Senate to help human trafficking victims. Senate Bill 181 recognizes that women who have been convicted of aggravated prostitution should have an opportunity for redemption including housing, treatment and employment. It removes the requirement that those convicted of aggravated prostitution, which are usually women with a history of being trafficked and abused, be placed on the sex offender registry. These victims of human trafficking do not deserve to be relegated to the same registry as rapists and pedophiles.
Supporting Texas in fight to secure southern border – The Senate passed SJR 906 to express strong support for Texas’s efforts to secure the southern border and exercise their right to self-defense under Article I of the US Constitution. Tennessee has had national guard troops in Texas for quite some time assisting the state with an unprecedented incursion of illegal immigrants crossing the southern border.
Next week, I look forward to sharing more with you about news and updates in the General Assembly. In the meantime if I can be of any service, please reach out to me if I can be of assistance to you at 615-741-2368 or sen.page.walley@capitol.tn.gov.

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