“In 2024, and frankly for the remainder of my time in office, I believe our job is to fortify that which has been built over the years, and to remember the work it took to get here,” opened Governor Lee at last night’s State of the State address. Before delineating his plan to guide the future of Tennessee, the governor also warmly acknowledged the presence of Lt. Governor Randy McNally, who made his first capitol appearance of the year.
Lee stressed the importance of fiscal responsibility, the protection of children, education, rural healthcare, agricultural conservation, and cutting bureaucratic red tape, among other things. Though tension was a bit high during parts of his speech, the governor commanded the room, even taking a break during one of the more disruptive outbursts. “It's a very good time to remind everyone that, as it has been, civility is a strength: it is not a weakness,” Lee stated after a few vocal interruptions from the gallery.
Later, while speaking about rural healthcare, the governor was interrupted by continuous shouts from above: “Children are dying!” “You don’t care!” A bystander in the left gallery reclaimed the space: "Let the governor speak uninterrupted, please."
Notably, political hopeful Luis Mata didn’t let a good opportunity go to waste. When the governor was speaking on educational funding, Rep. Mike Sparks’s opponent decided to make his feelings known from his perch in the gallery. “We rank 46th in the state!” Mata shouted. He proceeded to audibly boo during the applause.
As for those notoriously disruptive electeds we’re accustomed to hearing from, their presence was noticeably tame. The only pronounced incident we witnessed happened after the address, when a masked Justin Pearson led a small “Whose house? Our house!” chant while exiting the House floor, pulling down his mask for the supporters and photographers present.
Midway through his speech, the governor broached the topic of school choice. “There are some who will say that parents don't belong in the decision making process about their child's education,” he said, “But our responsibility is to the student and to the family, not to the status quo.” In addition to the expansion of the ESA program, the governor also plans to make an additional investment in the TISA formula this year “to help public schools retain the best and brightest teachers in their individual districts.”
He then acknowledged the presence of Memphis mother Arieale Munson and her two sons, Steven and Nigel. After putting Nigel in a public charter school, Munson, a single mother working two jobs, used the ESA to enroll Steven in St. George's Independent School. “Each student has unique needs,” Lee said, “and when parents have a choice, [a] child’s life is changed forever.”
Next, the governor touched on an essential part of creating strong Tennessee families: monitoring the effects of social media on young minds. “Depression, anxiety and loneliness [are] all skyrocketing among children,” Lee said, echoing the sentiments of Attorney General Skrmetti, who is currently suing Meta.
Alongside the state legislature, the governor has proposed the Protecting Children from Social Media Act, which “will require social media companies to get parental consent for minors to create their own social media account in Tennessee” and will “empower parents with the tools to help their kids online.”
CUTTING THROUGH RED TAPE
“One of our top objectives has been making government work better for the people,” stated the governor. “And in my view, less government is better government.” With that in mind, Lee put forward two key steps in tackling bureaucratic overreach, including an initiative to cut his own powers. “This year, working with the General Assembly, we will bring forward and plan to repeal or streamline nearly 40 percent of all existing rules across the executive branch,” he said, which will equate to about “4,000 rules eliminated or streamlined. I’m proud that this will be one of the largest cuts of red tape, not just in Tennessee history, but for any state anywhere in the country.”
Crucially, Governor Lee also proposed statewide building permit reform. “A bureaucratic permitting process is bad for everybody but the government,” he said. “This proposal will make it easier and more cost effective to build homes and businesses and childcare facilities, everything.”
“Our ag industry employs more than 360,000 Tennesseans and generates $89 billion annually, making agriculture the number one contributor to our state's economy,” Lee proudly exclaimed to those in attendance. “Yet today, today we are ranked the third most threatened state for farmland loss in the country.” This year, the state legislature will be introducing the Farmland Preservation Fund, establishing a state-funded grant program for farmers to voluntarily place their land in a conservation easement.
You can watch the entire state of the state address on the governor’s YouTube channel.