Gov. Lee’s new budget pushes education funding, support for local government

BY CAROLE GRAVES
TML Communications Director

Declaring the state as “healthy and strong,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee outlined his administration’s major initiatives for the coming fiscal year in his second annual State of the State address given before a joint session of the Tennessee General Assembly. His proposed $40.8 billion budget includes major investments in education, a continued focus on rural economic development, criminal justice reforms, and a 50% tax cut to the professional privilege tax.
His budget also recommends $100 million in one-time funding for local government: $50 million to be allocated among cities and $50 million to counties.
“The state is seeing strong economic times, but many of our local governments are struggling financially,” Lee said.
If Lee’s plan is approved by the legislature, each local government would be eligible to receive its share of the $50 million in grant money provided it is spent on one-time expenses in the areas of public safety, street projects, capital maintenance, utility system upgrades, and IT hardware upgrades. Specific grant amounts will be based on population and will be administered through the state comptroller’s office.
“Local government knows better than we do how to direct resources,” Lee said.
For education, Lee is proposing the largest investment in K-12 teacher salaries in Tennessee history. His budget sets aside $117 million for teachers’ salaries, equal to a 4% pay raise and increasing the average starting salary from $36,000 to $40,000.
Other K-12 education investments include:
• Improving Early Literacy: $70 million to create new teacher training standards;
• Governor’s Teaching Fellowship: $8.5 million to provide college scholarships to at least 1,000 students in order to recruit and retain the best teachers to stay in Tennessee;
• Tennessee Teacher and Leader Institute: $4 million to support professional development; and
• K-12 Mental Health Trust Fund: $250 million investment in one-time funds to support mental health services in all 95 counties.
“Funding BEP growth, 4% teachers raises, the Tennessee Teacher and Leader Institute, record investments in teacher recruitment, professional development, literacy training, and the K-12 Mental Health Trust Fund, our total new dollars invested in the future of public education in the coming fiscal year will equal more than $600 million” Lee said.
Lee has also earmarked $160 million for Higher Education capital improvements and $70 million for capital maintenance projects on college campuses.
In the area of rural development and support, Lee’s proposal includes:
• Economic Development Opportunity Fund - $20 million to support site development, main-street development; and infrastructure assistance;
• Restructuring ECD’s incentive package to companies who locate in the state’s distressed counties;
• Broadband Expansion - $25 million to increase services in rural areas;
• Office of Rural Tourism - $2.4 million for marketing efforts in rural Tennessee; and
• Health Care - $4 million for increased payments to rural health clinics and expand dental care through the Department of Health
Lee closed his speech with inspirational remarks, paying tribute to the leaders before him.
“As we celebrate the centennial of Tennessee’s role in ratifying the 19th Amendment this year, I hope we remember this – the long arc of history remembers fondly when leaders do the right thing, especially when it’s hard, especially when the politics of the day don’t offer any rewards.
My hope is that history records that we were leaders who worked together, who stood firm in our individual convictions but who remembered that differences should not divide us. Rather, they challenge us to take the higher, harder road of understanding, respect, and common purpose.
God has given us great favor and blessed us with a great responsibility to affect positive change for our families, our communities, and our state. May we pursue the challenges before us with grace, humility, and courage. Some 6.8 million Tennesseans are counting on us to do just that. Let’s make them proud. Thank you, and God bless the great state of Tennessee.”