Here Comes the Gov
Bill Lee brings his State of the State roadshow to Knoxville, talking workforce, justice and character education.
by jesse fox mayshark • march 6, 2019
gov. bill lee backstage at the clarence brown theatre on tuesday night.
As the middle stop on a three-night tour that began Monday in Nashville with a packed legislative chamber, Gov. Bill Lee’s appearance at the Clarence Brown Theatre on the University of Tennessee campus Tuesday night may not be a highlight of his week.
On healthcare, a task force to look for ways to curb costs.
Speaking to an auditorium that was somewhere between half and three-quarters full, Lee gave an abridged version of the State of the State address he presented the night before. He elicited applause at several points from a crowd that seemed largely Republican, particularly when he blamed lax character education for the popularity of socialism among 18-to-29-year-olds.
But in keeping with the sunny conservative businessman persona he presented all last year on the campaign trail, Lee dispensed little red meat. His speech was rooted in a fundamentally optimistic view of Tennessee.
Befitting a Republican governor with a Republican legislative supermajority inheriting a state government from another Republican governor with another Republican legislative supermajority, Lee began by saying that Tennessee is already doing well.
“When I reflect upon our state and I see our people, I’m filled with pride,” he said. “And I’m proud to report to you, after seeing with my own eyes, that the state of our state is hopeful, and it’s prosperous, and it’s strong.”
The address was billed as “State of East Tennessee.” (Lee is delivering a “State of West Tennessee” in Memphis on Thursday.) But apart from a reference to last night’s basketball game, a tribute to Oak Ridge National Laboratory and a note of the severity of the opioid crisis, there was little specific to the region.
Lee used the same framing narrative he had on Monday, recalling an expedition he and his oldest daughter took when she turned 16, after they had been through what Lee called “personal tragic experiences in our lives.” Lee’s first wife, Carol Ann, was killed in a horseback riding accident in 2000.
After months of training, Lee and his daughter went to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming to climb Grand Teton, a 14,000-foot peak. Before arriving at a base camp at 11,000 feet the night before, Lee said a guide pulled him aside.
“He said, you need to make a decision that you are going to make this climb before you get up to the base camp,” Lee said. “Because when you get there you’re going to look up at the Grand Teton and it’s going to look like a massive granite spire before you, straight up higher than anything you’ve ever seen, and you’ll be very intimidated. And if you have the tiniest doubt on the way up there when you’re hiking, then once you stand at the base camp tonight and look up, you’re going to be convinced that you can’t possibly climb this thing.”
In Lee’s formulation, Tennessee is at the base camp with a nice view, but the biggest challenges, risks and rewards are ahead.
It’s the kind of rhetoric you expect from a new governor, and it was delivered with a polish that suggested why Lee emerged as a bit of a dark horse to take the Republican nomination in a competitive field last year.
He was introduced Tuesday by the man who finished second in that primary, Randy Boyd, in his new role as interim president of the University of Tennessee. Boyd has said he and Lee bonded on the campaign trail as two businessmen who were relative newcomers to politics. He began by thanking the governor for including substantial new spending for UT in the proposed budget.
“We have a budget that’s unmatched, the highest budget we’ve ever had in our history, $643.8 million the governor’s outlined in his budget for us,” Boyd said. Included in that is $81.5 million in capital funding for the UT Institute of Agriculture’s new Energy and Environmental Science building.
Choice, Careers and Civics
Education was at the top of Lee’s list of priorities, with particular focus on workforce training and school choice. He talked about his Governor’s Initiative in Vocational Education (GIVE) Act, “a $25 million investment to increase the number of young adults earning an industry certification and entering a career within one year of high school graduation.”
Another $25 million would go to create Education Savings Accounts, which are functionally school vouchers and would allow some families to withdraw their children from public schools and receive benefits that could be spent on private school tuition or homeschool expenses.
“Parents need more choices with respect to the education of their children, and those options should be well-funded and highly accountable,” Lee said Tuesday. He also proposed doubling the amount of state funding, to $12 million, for charter school infrastructure (charter schools are typically responsible for maintaining their own facilities).
Knoxville Rep. Bill Dunn, who is speaker pro tempore of the House, said Tuesday that he would be carrying Lee’s school choice bill. Dunn is a longtime supporter of vouchers and charter schools. He said the limited scale of Lee’s proposal -- only 5,000 students in low-performing districts -- made sense as a starting point.
“Every child who benefits from it, that’s a life that has been improved,” Dunn said.
"For decades, this country’s been too willing to fight crime on the surface alone -- lock ‘em up and throw away the key. Now, in more ways than one, we’re paying the price for that." – Gov. Bill Lee
Dunn praised Lee’s proposals overall, although he said he awaits more information on some of them.
“The devil’s in the details,” Dunn said. “People get excited when you say you’re going to spend $15 million on something. I want to know what the program is. Just because you spend $15 million doesn’t mean you’re going to get results.”
In his Knoxville speech Tuesday, Lee concluded his education section with an exhortation to improve civic and character education in Tennessee schools.
“At face value this might seem like a small issue,” Lee said, “but in the last year, it was reported that young people between the ages of 18 and 29 in this country have a more favorable view of socialism than of capitalism. And last week I read about a recent study that said in 49 of our 50 states, a majority of residents would fail a U.S. citizenship test. Now, I can’t help but believe that those two statistics are connected.”
Lee, who made headlines recently because of a college yearbook photo that showed him in a Confederate Army uniform, warned that the country is at risk of losing touch with its traditional values.
“Whatever may be going on in other states or in our nation’s capital,” he said, “in this state, our children will be taught civics education, character formation and unapologetic American exceptionalism.”
Justice and Health
The other issue Lee devoted considerable time to was criminal justice reform, particularly in making it easier for former prisoners to re-enter civilian life.
“We must build a criminal justice system that’s tough, and that’s smart, and that is above all just,” Lee said. “For decades, this country’s been too willing to fight crime on the surface alone -- lock ‘em up and throw away the key. Now, in more ways than one, we’re paying the price for that. Tennessee is currently incarcerating more people, for a longer period of time, than ever before.”
To reform the system, Lee proposed measures including expanded community supervision (i.e. probation) and educational resources and vocational training for prisoners. He also wants to eliminate expungement fees to clear records for those who can’t afford them. The state fee is currently $180.
“Children with an incarcerated parent are more likely to be incarcerated themselves,” Lee said. “And besides the human cost, there’s the actual cost -- incarcerating an adult in the state of Tennessee costs $28,000 a year.”
On healthcare, he said he supported a legislative effort to seek a federal waiver that would let the state receive its Medicaid funding as a block grant. The Trump administration has signaled an openness to block grants, which would cap funding to each state. (Hospital associations have strongly opposed block grants, which they say would lead to cuts in benefits and coverage.)
Asked in a short news conference after the speech whether he would consider supporting an expansion of Medicaid if the block-grant proposal fails, Lee said, “I want to work with the federal government to look at waiver opportunities that would allow us to craft a healthcare system in this state that works. Our healthcare system is fundamentally flawed and broken.”
He promised to work with providers, patient advocates and others to make the system more transparent and reduce overall costs. As a start, he called on Finance & Administration Commissioner Stuart McWhorter to chair a “healthcare modernization task force.”
Because the Legislature is in session this week, none of the local delegation was in the audience. But both Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs and Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero were there, along with county commissioners Randy Smith and Larsen Jay and representatives from the Knoxville Chamber, and many UT administrators and faculty members.