Gov. Lee unveils legislative priorities, budget in State of the State address
Tennessee is ‘strong, resilient and ready for the future’
Gov. Bill Lee on Monday delivered his sixth State of the State address during a joint session of the General Assembly. During his speech in the House chamber, Lee highlighted his legislative priorities for 2024 along with a proposed $52.6 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year that enhances education, strengthens public safety, cuts taxes and supports families across Tennessee.
The governor’s proposed budget continued to make key investments in strategic areas like education with more than $261 million in new funding for K-12 public schools, including teacher pay increases.
Education remains a top priority this year. Lee underscored his focus on improving the state’s public schools, while also ensuring parents have the freedom to make education decisions specific to their child’s needs. He expressed his intentions to provide school choice for every Tennessee family through his Education Freedom Scholarship Act proposal.
Lee also noted that $1.8 billion in new state dollars have been invested in public education during the last five years. Last year, the General Assembly approved the largest pay increase for teachers in state history and committed to making Tennessee one of the top 10 states for highest teacher salaries by 2026.
“We have placed an unprecedented focus on public education, and I intend to continue that every year,” Lee said. “We can give parents choice and support public schools at the same time. You’ll hear me say that over and over again – these two ideas are not in conflict.”
Other initiatives include a $410 million franchise tax cut to support Tennessee’s economy, expanding rural health care access and the creation of four new state parks.
Lee credited the General Assembly’s unwavering commitment to fiscal responsibility as the reason for the state’s firm financial foundation. Following several years of extraordinary revenue growth, revenues are stabilizing. Good fiscal governance has well-positioned Tennessee to continue its record of fiscal responsibility with a balanced budget, healthy savings, and tax cuts.
“Tennessee’s fiscal management approach has set the standard for how states across the country should operate, and families and businesses nationwide have taken note,” Lee said.
Lee added that Tennessee’s economy is “very strong” and “built to withstand even the pressure of our country’s uncertain economic future.” He also touted the state’s AAA bond rating, which it has held for nine consecutive years.
“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 businesses, the second lowest-taxed state per capita and the lowest debt state in America,” Lee said. “Any state would envy the position that we’ve been in. The members of the Tennessee General Assembly – all of you here tonight as well as your predecessors – are the ones to thank because of your unwavering commitment to keeping our state in a strong financial position, by balancing our budget, maintaining a healthy savings account and cuttings taxes for Tennesseans year after year.”
Members of the General Assembly will review Lee’s proposed budget in the coming weeks and make their own recommendations.
Notable highlights from the proposed 2024-25 budget include:
- $261 million for TISA formula growth, teacher pay raises
- $141.5 million to establish Education Freedom Scholarships
- $30 million for summer learning programs
- $3.2 million for AP Access for All
- $2.5 million to strengthen students’ reading and phonics skills
Strong and healthy families
- $208 million for apprenticeships and skilled training, greater access to specialty care and telemedicine, improved career pathways, hospital and physician practice grants, and a new Center of Excellence to expand rural health support
- $100 million over five years for community mental health centers and behavioral health hospitals, expanding substance abuse disorder treatment, intensive in-home supports, primary care training, early childhood training
- $26.7 million investment in services for Tennesseans with disabilities
- $17 million for an additional 60 State Troopers and support staff
- $8 million to expand the school-based behavioral health liaison program
- $750,000 to fund Houses of Worship Security Grants
- Funding for a National Guard recruitment incentive package
- $63 million to create four new Tennessee State Parks
- $20 million to expand blueway trail access to state waterways and invest in dozens of state lakes
- $20 million to improve water quality at rivers, lakes and streams statewide
- $25 million to establish the Farmland Conservation Fund
- $5 million to protect and enhance scenic beauty along major highways
- $3 million Access 2030 to make Tennessee State Parks accessible to those with disabilities
- $410 million annual franchise tax cut
- $20 million additional Rainy-Day Fund investment
House unanimously passes bill changing fire alarm protocols
The House on Thursday voted unanimously to pass legislation requiring schools to determine the cause of a fire alarm before allowing children to leave their classrooms.
House Bill 1644 is among several safety proposals reintroduced from the special session in August. The bill was filed by House Majority leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, in response to the Covenant School shooting in Nashville on March 27.
One of the six victims, William Kinney, 9, was leading his third-grade classmates to safety as line leader when he was fatally shot by a former student of the school. Smoke from the shooter’s weapon triggered the school’s fire alarm, but the victims were unaware there was an active shooter in the school when they heard the alarm. Kinney was the first to encounter the shooter in the hallway of the school.
“This is one small step, but a very important one for both the families at Covenant, for (Tennessee), and I was glad to see it get unanimous support,” Lamberth said on Thursday. “This is one of a number of bills we pass this year that will make Tennessee safer tomorrow than it is today.” The bill is expected to be considered in the Senate chamber in the coming weeks.
Legislation to remove political flags from classrooms advances
A Republican bill to ensure students in Tennessee are not indoctrinated by political flags in the classroom advanced out of the K-12 Subcommittee this week.
House Bill 1605, sponsored by State Rep. Gino Bulso, R-Brentwood, would prohibit certain flags from being displayed in public schools.
“What this (legislation) does is make it crystal clear that both flags, and images of flags that are used in a way to try to teach students a particular set of values that may or may not correspond to the values that they’re learning at home, are not going to be allowed,” Bulso said.
The bill, as amended, would allow for multiple flags with local, state, national, world and historical significance to be displayed at schools. In addition to the Tennessee and United States flags, other flags that would be allowed include military flags, government flags, foreign country flags and flags used temporarily for course curriculums.
House Bill 1605 would also allow parents to take civil action against a school if it refuses to act within 10 days of receiving a written notice regarding a potential violation of the law. The bill is scheduled to be heard in the Education Administration Committee on Feb. 14.
Bill would increase punishment for intentionally blocking roads
Republicans have filed legislation aimed at preventing roadways from being illegally blocked by protesters in Tennessee.
House Bill 2031, sponsored by State Rep. Jody Barrett, R-Dickson, would increase the penalty for intentionally obstructing roadways or other areas used for transportation from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class D felony. The legislation would also allow anyone who suffered injury or loss as a result of the crime to seek compensatory damages through legal action.
“Blocking highways and bridges for a protest without obtaining the necessary approval beforehand creates an extremely dangerous situation for both participants and the general public,” Barrett said. “Protests have their time and place, but this type of behavior is unacceptable and must have more severe consequences.”
A Class D felony is punishable by a minimum of two years in prison and a maximum fine of $5,000. If approved, House Bill 2031 would take effect July 1.
House passes bill requiring judges to prioritize safety when setting bonds
House Republicans this week passed legislation prioritizing the safety of communities when pretrial decisions and bail determinations are made for a defendant.
Present law requires bail to be set as low as the court determines is necessary to reasonably assure a defendant’s appearance in court. House Bill 1642, sponsored by House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, does not do away with other mitigating bond factors a judge must consider when determining bond, but simply says the community’s safety must come first.
Other factors, such as the nature of the offense, apparent probability of conviction, and likelihood of appearing for their court date, would still be considered. The bill passed with strong bipartisan support. The Senate chamber is expected to take up the companion version of the bill in the coming weeks.
4 new state parks included in Gov. Lee’s proposed budget
Gov. Bill Lee has included funding to create four new state parks in Tennessee as part of his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The proposal would cost $63 million and would be the first step towards Lee’s goal of funding eight new state parks by the time he leaves office.
“Last year, we created a new conservation strategy to preserve the state for generations to come, but there’s more work to do,” Lee said Monday during his sixth annual State of the State address. “We’ve continually made investments in our state parks, which are the cornerstone of this conservation effort. This year’s proposed budget will take it to the next level…”
The proposed new state parks include:
- Cardwell Mountain (Warren County): Cardwell Mountain is a local landmark in McMinnville. The 530-acre property includes a Native American earthen monument, rock art site and archaeological sites. It also contains a unique upland plateau and mountainous landscape that is bounded by the Collins River. The property was acquired in 2021 and is not currently open to the public. The budget includes funding for a visitors’ center and other amenities.
- Fort Southwest Point (Roane County): Currently managed by the city of Kingston, Fort Southwest Point was garrisoned by veterans of the American Revolution. The site is included on the National Register of Historic Places, and funding would be used for planning and staffing for the park.
- Head of the Crow (Franklin County): The park would include 4,258 acres that are currently managed as part of the South Cumberland State Park and contain the headwaters for Crow Creek. The property would join four state natural areas and provide better outdoor recreational opportunities in the area. The budget includes funding for infrastructure, a visitors’ center and other amenities.
- Ocoee River and Hiwassee Scenic River state parks (Polk County): Currently managed together, the proposed budget would split the Hiwassee Scenic River and Ocoee River into separate state parks. Funding would be used for campground upgrades at Hiwassee and additional staffing to allow recreational and natural resources to be managed independently.
The General Assembly last year approved funding to create four new state parks – Devil’s Backbone State Park in Lewis County, Middle Fork Bottoms State Park in Madison County, North Chickamauga Creek Gorge State Park in Hamilton and Sequatchie counties, and Scott’s Gulf Wilderness State Park in White County. Every Tennessean lives within an hour of at least one state park. Additional information about what each park offers can be found online at www.tnstateparks.com.
Bill would help counties affected by natural disasters
A proposed program to help Tennessee communities recover from natural disasters advanced out of the House Departments and Agencies Subcommittee this week.
House Bill 1795, sponsored by State Rep. Kip Capley, R-Summertown, would establish the Natural Disaster Relief Program to assist counties affected by a natural disaster. Grant funding could be used for infrastructure repairs, debris removal and life-saving emergency measures.
“We had a tornado that affected many, many Tennesseans last year and as a state, I think we’re all trying to be proactive in finding ways where we can help the rural areas in the counties that maybe are not as fortunate,” Capley said Wednesday.
In order to qualify for grant funding through the program, a county must have experienced a natural disaster that resulted in damages that did not qualify for federal relief. The county must also be under a state of emergency as well. The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency would evaluate grant applications and distribute funding up to $250,000 per county, per year. House Bill 1795 is scheduled to be heard in the State Government Committee on Feb. 14.
Legislation aimed at deterring juvenile crime
Republicans have introduced legislation aimed at curbing a disturbing increase in violent crimes committed by juveniles in Tennessee.
House Bill 2126, filed by State Rep. Rusty Grills, R-Newbern, would allow local district attorneys and judges to determine if a juvenile age 15 and older should be transferred to adult criminal court when they are charged with committing or attempting to commit organized retail crime or theft of a firearm.
The legislation addresses a dangerous trend in which minors are being recruited by adults to steal or break into businesses, homes or cars because there are fewer consequences for their actions.
“This bill provides district attorneys and law enforcement with additional tools to fight gang violence,” Grills said. “Serious crimes should have serious consequences. Treating juveniles as adults in these cases acknowledges the severity of these crimes and will ensure victims’ rights are upheld. Our goal is to deter and redirect at-risk young people so they do not become repeat violent offenders in the future.”
Existing state law already allows courts to transfer a juvenile to adult court for certain crimes, including first-degree murder, second-degree murder, rape, aggravated rape, rape of a child, aggravated rape of a child, aggravated robbery, especially aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, especially aggravated burglary, kidnapping, commission of an act of terrorism, and carjacking.
There were 13,700 juveniles arrested statewide for various crimes in 2022, according to the most recent data from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Of those arrests, 1,450 involved some form of theft or stolen property offenses while 424 were for weapons law violations.
Tennessee Blue Book honors first responders
Secretary of State Tre Hargett recently released the latest Tennessee Blue Book. The 2023-24 edition is dedicated to Tennessee’s courageous first responders. The Volunteer State is home to more than 50,000 law enforcement, firefighters, and emergency medical services professionals who selflessly aid citizens in dire circumstances every day.
The Tennessee Blue Book, published every two years, is the definitive manual on Tennessee state government, with detailed information about all three branches of government, including biographies of all members of the Tennessee General Assembly. The Blue Book contains information on the federal government, Tennessee history, election statistics, and more.
The 2023-24 Blue Book is available free of charge to all Tennessee residents. To request a copy, citizens should contact their representative in the General Assembly. They can also soon place an order with the Secretary of State’s Division of Publications online at sos.tn.gov/bluebook-request.
Election integrity: House Bill 1897, sponsored by State Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro, would not allow an individual to serve as an administrator of elections in Tennessee while also qualifying as a candidate for public office. The legislation would also require an administrator of elections to temporarily step down from their position at least 30 days prior to an election if an immediate family member was on the ballot in the county they serve. House Bill 1897 is scheduled to be heard in the Local Government Committee on Feb. 13.
Lifetime orders of protection: The House of Representatives on Thursday passed House Bill 1645, which will further strengthen existing legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2021 that allowed victims of violent crime to petition a court for a lifetime order of protection. House Bill 1645 extends lifetime protection for victims of aggravated stalking. The law prohibits convicted offenders from communicating with their victims for life.
Election day school closures: House Bill 1649, introduced by State Rep. Jake McCalmon, R-Franklin, would require public schools to close for instruction if the building was being used as a polling place for a presidential primary election. Schools used as polling locations for the November general election are already required to close for instruction.
Protecting children from sexual abuse: House Bill 701, introduced by State Rep. Clay Doggett, R-Pulaski, would add continuous sexual abuse of a child to the list of offenses that require a defendant to have community supervision for life. In Tennessee, people convicted of continuous sexual abuse of a child are required to serve their entire term, which averages nearly 24 years.
Blue-light emergency phones: House Bill 1874, introduced by State Rep. John Crawford, R-Bristol/Kingsport, would require all blue-light emergency telephone calls to be recorded. Blue-light phones are located on college campuses across the country and connect students to law enforcement or campus public safety departments in case of an emergency. Recordings of calls could help officials better respond to emergencies.
Family Life Curriculum: House Bill 996, sponsored by State Rep. Charlie Baum, R-Murfreesboro, would prohibit topics related to sexual activity from being taught to students in kindergarten through fifth grade as part of a family life curriculum. Tennessee’s K-5 family life curriculum standards do not currently include information about sexual activity, and this legislation will ensure that continues. House Bill 996 is scheduled to be heard on the House floor Feb. 12.
Waterfowl hunting for veterans, active duty military: House Bill 1665, introduced by State Rep. Todd Warner, R-Chapel Hill, would establish two exclusive days for veterans and active military personnel to hunt waterfowl at no cost. More than 440,000 veterans and active military personnel would be eligible to hunt under the proposal.
Supreme Court appointee: Gov. Bill Lee has announced the appointment of Mary L. Wagner to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Wagner is currently a circuit court judge for the 30th Judicial District, which covers Shelby County. She previously served as an associate at Rice, Amundsen & Caperton, PLLC and taught as an adjunct professor at The University of Memphis School of Law. Wagner holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder and J.D. from the University of Memphis School of Law. She will fill a vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Roger A. Page, effective Aug. 31. Wagner’s appointment is subject to confirmation by the General Assembly.
Ag Day: The 2024 Tennessee Ag Day on the Hill will take place Tuesday, March 19 at the Beth Harwell Plaza at the State Capitol in Nashville. The annual event will feature farm animals, a legislative versus executive branch competition and a biscuit breakfast.