NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Governor Bill Lee delivered his fifth "State of the State" address Monday evening.
Before the address, House Democratic Leader and Memphis representative Karen Camper delivered a prebuttal in which she called the death of Tyre Nichols a "brutal and senseless murder" that needs to be addressed.
While Lee did not discuss police reform, he described the Nichols family's "courage" as a "picture of hope."
The following is the full transcript of Bill Lee's State of the State address for Tennessee in 2023:
Thank you very much. Lieutenant Governor McNally, Speaker Sexton, Speaker Pro Tem Haile, Speaker Pro Tem Marsh, Members of the 113th General Assembly, Justices, Constitutional Officers, cabinet members, staff members, friends, family:
Thank you for being here. I’m proud to serve the people of Tennessee with you.
And to those of you who are new to this General Assembly, I want to welcome you. You have accepted a call to serve, and I have come to realize how valuable and important that is. Whether or not we agree on everything, I genuinely look forward to working with you. You’ve accepted a high calling, and I want to say thank you.
Being Governor of this state is the honor of my life. And it’s infinitely more rewarding to serve with a wonderful First Lady by my side.
Maria wishes that she could be here tonight. We’re getting ready for the next stage of her journey, and we want to thank all of you – in this chamber and across the state – for your prayers and support.
It means the world to us. From her heart and mine, thank you.
Two weeks ago, I took an oath to uphold and defend the constitutions of Tennessee and the United States of America.
As I said on Inauguration Day – this halfway point is a good time to reflect, but it’s an even better time to plan.
Because our state is leading, the nation has great expectations for us. What will future generations say about Tennessee in the year 2023 and beyond?
As a seventh-generation Tennessean, I often think about the role that our state and her people have played in the great turning points of American history. From the courage of early settlers and abolitionists, to the leaders of Women’s Suffrage and Civil Rights, Tennesseans have long served as a guiding light in our nation’s moments of transformation.
One of the best examples is a man from rural Tennessee who was drafted to serve our country during World War One.
On October 8, 1918, Alvin C. York stood behind enemy lines on the Western Front. His platoon had suffered heavy casualties. In fact there were only seven men left with him and they were outnumbered by hundreds. But Sergeant York took command of the seven American soldiers and won the battle. That day, a rural Tennessean earned the Congressional Medal of Honor and returned home to Fentress County as an American hero. Sergeant York stepped up to lead when our country was counting on him.
Tonight, we’re fortunate to be joined by his grandchildren. Please join me in recognizing Retired Colonel Gerald York, Deborah York, and Angie York.
Most of us know the story of Alvin C. York, but I mention it now to emphasize that Tennessee’s success is no accident. Tennessee is America at its best because of the men and women who have made it that way.
In 2019, I stood in this chamber and said, “Tennessee can lead the nation.”
Tonight – standing on the shoulders of giants who came before us – I say with great pride that Tennessee is leading the nation. The state of our beloved state is prosperous, hopeful, and unrivaled.
Ford Motor Company could have picked any state in the country. Why did they choose to plant their roots in West Tennessee?
In-N-Out Burger – a favorite, family-run company…of all the states they could have picked, their new hub and first footprint east of Texas is coming to the Volunteer State. Why Tennessee?
Folks, the American people know a leading state when they see one.
That’s why people, families, and companies are moving here in record numbers.
Our investments in public education, workforce development, safe schools – and our commitment to freedom and families – have all earned national recognition.
Our commitment to a high quality of life does not stop at the borders of big cities. In fact, it begins in the most rural areas of our state. Thanks to that commitment, the number of distressed counties in Tennessee has dropped from 15 to 10, and we are not done.
All of this has paid off in the form of thousands of new jobs and historic economic development – creating more opportunities for every Tennessean to have a good job, a great school, a safe neighborhood, a strong family, and a brighter future.
To continue leading the nation, I’m proposing a legislative agenda and a budget that will focus on the fundamentals that put our state in this enviable position in the first place.
Good Jobs + Opportunity
Tennessee has a legacy of fiscal responsibility that has allowed our state’s economy to flourish. The same cannot be said for the rest of the country. Economic pressure is building, and it’s hitting the pocket of every American family.
At times like this, many states are forced to choose between raising taxes or taking on more debt, but not Tennessee.
Decades of smart fiscal stewardship have enabled us to weather the national economic storms and do so while maintaining a healthy savings account and cutting taxes for Tennesseans.
So, this year, we’re cutting taxes again.
Last August, we gave Tennessee families a one-month break from grocery taxes, to provide relief amid nationwide inflation. We should do that again this year, but let’s extend it to three consecutive months.
I’m also introducing the Tennessee Works Act to deliver more than $150 million in annual tax relief to small businesses and expand Tennessee’s competitive edge for years to come.
When companies want to relocate, they look for a state that can guarantee stability. Tennessee's healthy Rainy-Day Fund is one of our greatest strengths. And the bottom line is, it enables us to recruit more companies and create more jobs in Tennessee. That's why we’re adding $250 million to the state’s Rainy-Day Fund this year.
Before I move on, for decades, the General Assembly in this state has been committed to a balanced budget that also recognizes the priorities of Tennesseans. You should be commended for that, you should get credit for that, and I want to thank you for that.
In recent months, we’ve taken a closer look at transportation needs in this state, and I appreciate those of you who have engaged in the conversation thus far.
It’s time to invest in a transportation strategy for one of the fastest growing states in the country. We cannot solve this problem with debt or higher taxes, but we have to do something.
Right now, there’s a $26 billion backlog of projects across the state. Simply put, we are way behind, and we have to change the way we fund and build our roads and bridges.
We know that we have to tackle big, urban projects, but if we don’t change the strategy, we all know who would end up paying the price – our rural communities.
That’s why I’m introducing the Transportation Modernization Act – a plan to engage public-private partnerships to build additional choice lanes on urban highways, to ensure electric vehicle owners pay their share in maintaining our roads, and to provide a delivery model that builds rural and urban projects faster, all without the burden falling on Tennessee taxpayers.
And hear me when I say this: toll roads are not on the table.
We’re talking about choice lanes, public-private partnerships, new delivery models – solutions that have worked for states across the country, including our friends in Texas and Florida.
In combination with this new strategy, we have to jumpstart the process and make a major initial investment just to begin to catch up.
To alleviate urban congestion in our major cities and widen rural interstates across the state, we’re proposing an additional $3 billion to build roads in all three Grand Divisions.
With that, we are also proposing another $300 million into our local highway program, so that local communities can build and maintain the roads they need.
And here’s the bottom line – there is a great cost to doing nothing.
We can easily kick the can down the road for four more years, but Tennesseans will pay the price for it with more potholes, longer commutes, and less economic activity.
We have an obligation to prepare our state for the future, and the time to do so is now.
Our state’s economic success can also be measured by the number of jobs created – 170,000 new jobs in just four years.
Now, our workforce pipeline must keep up.
Pathways to success don’t look the same for every Tennessean, nor should they. For many, a certification from one of our Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology will open the right doors.
Since 2019, we've prioritized TCAT construction across this state, so more Tennesseans can kickstart a great career close to home. Today, nearly 9 out of 10 graduates get a job in the field they studied.
This year, I propose that we complete Tennessee’s TCAT Master Plan. To do that, we’ll expand and improve 16 existing TCATs, replace seven outdated facilities, and build six brand new TCATs at strategic locations across our state.
Our goal is to train 10,000 new skilled workers a year. To achieve this, we’re proposing $1 billion in this budget – the largest investment in our technical colleges in state history.
Meaningful work changes lives, and we don’t have to look far to see the results.
Tonight, we’re joined by Brad Barnard. Brad has lived in Morristown, Tennessee his whole life and worked at a local stamping factory for 33 years, but he wanted more out of his career.
Brad was first introduced to TCAT Morristown in 2015 through an apprenticeship opportunity, and in 2021, he decided to enroll full time and earn his diploma. Now, at a young 54-years old, Brad is enjoying a second career as a programmer with McNeilus Steel Incorporated, a company that we recruited to Tennessee in 2019.
This is why we invest in TCATs. This is why we recruit great companies to Tennessee. Please join me in congratulating Brad Barnard on his success.
Great Schools + High-Quality Education
Access to career and technical education can change the trajectory of someone’s life. We should expand those opportunities in our K-12 schools.
Starting with the GIVE Act four years ago, we’ve worked to create more vocational and STEM programs in classrooms across the state. As a result, dual enrollment for high school students has nearly doubled. You’ve heard me say we should change the way high school looks in Tennessee. and we’re well on our way to making that a reality.
Last year, we reformed the public school funding formula for the first time in 30 years and invested an historic amount to fund Tennessee students based on their individual needs. This year, I’m proposing an additional investment of $350 million into the TISA formula, and that includes $125 million for teacher pay raises.
When I came into office, the minimum pay for teachers was set at $35,000. We are proposing legislation that, if it passes, will increase the minimum teacher pay, by the time I leave office, to $50,000.
In just the last six months, hundreds of families living in underserved zip codes have had an opportunity to pick the best school for their child through our Education Savings Account program.
Our ESA program is changing lives, and states across the country are following Tennessee’s lead.
I have always believed that we should strive to have the best public school system in the country and provide choices for parents.
There are some who claim you have to choose either/or, but these two ideas are not in conflict. In fact, excelling in both is how we can lead the nation in education.
I want to introduce you to some Tennesseans who are proof of that idea.
Natalia Serrano, a fourth grader here in Nashville, was struggling with reading and writing and rarely spoke in class.
Her parents and her older sister could see that she was on a failing path. They thought that if they could just get her into a different school with smaller classes, she would have a chance.
When we launched the ESA program, Natalia’s family applied and were soon enrolled at Holy Rosary Academy. Just since last fall, Natalia has already jumped three reading levels. Her goals for this year are to read an extra 30 minutes every day and to study hard for her weekly spelling tests. She also joined the choir and a Bible study.
Natalia found her voice.
Every child in this state deserves access to a high-quality education.
Please join me in welcoming Natalia Serrano and her family. We are so proud of you.
Tennessee is blessed with incredible public school teachers and administrators. Last month, Oakhaven High School in Memphis was in the national spotlight for their innovative use of phonics learning in English, Math, and Science classes.
A few miles down the road, Dr. Vincent Hunter, Principal at Whitehaven High in South Memphis, is leading a school that continues to exceed expectations.
Dr. Hunter, who is a Whitehaven graduate himself, serves a student body that is 99% African American.
Under his leadership, the school has expanded dual enrollment, AP, and foreign language courses. Whitehaven is one of just three high schools in the whole district with a graduation rate of 90% or higher.
I had the honor of attending last year’s spring graduation and let me tell you, I’m really encouraged about the future leaders of Memphis and of our state.
We have been in constant prayer for the Nichols family since they tragically lost their son in January. Their courage, along with the compassion shown by the people of Memphis, is a picture of hope.
The graduates of Whitehaven High School, who are defying the odds and chasing their dreams – that’s a picture of hope.
Memphis is an exceptional city, and I believe it has a bright future, thanks to leaders like my friend, Vincent Hunter.
Please join me in welcoming the Principal of Whitehaven High School, Dr. Vincent Hunter, and his family.
When it comes to learning loss, Tennessee has made great strides, but more can be done.
We know the worst thing we can do for a child’s success is push them to the next level when they’re simply not ready. Third-grade reading has been the most important indicator for parents and teachers to see that a student is struggling before it’s too late.
As a parent – and hearing from educators across the state – I know this can be one of the biggest challenges during the elementary school years. That’s why our budget will prioritize new literacy programs, from tutoring to summer camps, and give students multiple pathways to becoming a strong reader.
The ability to read at grade level can determine a child’s future. Our approach is about providing additional support, so that every student is set up for success in the classroom and beyond.
When it comes to education, funding, choices, and literacy are all important, but none of that matters more than your child coming home from school safe every day.
Since 2019, Tennessee has done a lot of work to strengthen school safety. We increased funding, boosted mental health programs, and established a grant to place more than 200 School Resource Officers across the state.
Last year, I signed an executive order to engage parents and strengthen the relationship between schools and the local Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers who help watch over their communities.
Every single person has a role to play in school safety. That’s why we have a School Safety Toolkit for every parent, and we have the SafeTN App, where any Tennessean can report suspicious activity.
This year, we're doubling down with new legislation to enhance physical security in classrooms.
We’re also proposing new funding to place at least one Homeland Security Agent in each of our 95 counties.
Here’s why: A few months ago, a student at a high school in West Tennessee noticed something suspicious. The student reported their concern in the SafeTN app, bringing it to the attention of one of our Homeland Security agents in the region. The agent pursued the tip, and we have strong reason to believe that this prevented a real threat from becoming a real tragedy.
Our review of this case showed that the SafeTN app works, as long as a Homeland Security agent is available to take the case. These agents specialize in preventing acts of violence and terrorism, and we should enhance their role in our strategy.
We’ve done a lot to make schools safer, but I don’t want to look up months from now and think – we should’ve done more. I intend to make this a priority year after year.
And we know public safety doesn’t stop there.
Whether we’re protecting against the influence of the Chinese Communist Party or the dangers of a drug crisis stemming from an open border, we must continue to have a voice in national security when the safety of Tennesseans is at stake.
We will never stop investing in the safety of Tennesseans.
Our $100 million Violent Crime Intervention Grant Fund is already being used by 80% of local law enforcement agencies across the state. I propose that we invest another $50 million to keep that program going.
We added 100 Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers in the budget last year. This year, again, we’re adding 100 more troopers.
Ahead of this budget, we worked with the General Assembly to create 25 new forensic lab positions to help the TBI reduce the turnaround time for test kits.
And we’re investing in District Attorneys, with additional funding for staff and a statewide system upgrade, so they can take dangerous criminals to trial and ensure that justice is served.
There was a significant shift in this country last year when it comes to protecting the lives of the unborn. We now all have an opportunity and a moral obligation to support strong Tennessee families.
Pro-life is much more than defending the lives of the unborn.
*At this point in the address Lee was interrupted by shouts of protest*
Civility is not a weakness by the way. It is a strength. We should have a healthy debate.
This is not a matter of politics. This is about human dignity. We can have a healthy debate about the policy specifics, but we can also agree that America is rooted in a commitment to human dignity.
I’m talking about the dignity of the expecting mother working multiple jobs to make ends meet, the dignity of a baby born three months too early, the dignity of a father living with a disability, and the dignity of a family in crisis.
Just a minute ago, I said we have an opportunity to support families, and I have some very big news to share tonight.
Two years ago, at the request of the General Assembly, we secured an historic TennCare Medicaid waiver agreement – the only federally-approved waiver of its kind in the nation.
Our waiver actually rewards a state for efficient, responsible management of taxpayer resources by awarding additional federal funds – known as shared savings – to serve the most vulnerable. I want to thank our TennCare Director Stephen Smith for his remarkable leadership in working with the federal government to secure this waiver.
I’ve said all along, we would only move forward with this waiver if it was a good deal for Tennesseans. Tonight, I can share that we have claimed the first returns from this program, and not only did we get a good deal, we got a great deal.
For the first year alone, we will receive more than $300 million of shared savings, at no additional burden to Tennessee taxpayers.
We always believed in our strategy, but this result is a gamechanger.
In the last four years, we have extended postpartum care for mothers to 12 months, provided support for thousands more Tennesseans who are living with disabilities, and offered comprehensive dental benefits for TennCare recipients for the first time in our state’s history.
Now, with a pro-family landscape in the background, using the savings from just this first year, we will further strengthen postpartum coverage, provide services to over 5,000 more mothers, close the coverage gap for parents, and reach an additional 10,000 children – in total, offering services to nearly 25,000 more women, children, and parents in need.
In addition, Tennessee has the opportunity to ease one of the biggest financial burdens on mothers. We are going to propose covering the cost of diapers during the first two years of a baby’s life for mothers on TennCare.
If approved, Tennessee will be the first Medicaid program in the nation to implement this kind of support. That’s pro-life. That’s pro-family.
And further, with continued responsible management of our TennCare program, we believe this level of savings is possible for years to come, and we will work together with the General Assembly to develop a vision for TennCare’s future.
We have the opportunity – together – to expand more services, reach more families in need, and improve rural health care access across our state.
Despite enormous criticism from those who said we couldn’t or wouldn’t, we are going to do exactly what we said we would do when we pursued this shared savings waiver – expand services for the most vulnerable and provide those services to even more Tennesseans. And now that day has come.
In Tennessee, we value the dignity of a foster child who longs for a loving home, the dignity of a mother who simply cannot raise a child alone, and the dignity of a couple whose prayers for a child have not yet been answered.
Last fall, we began working anew with our partners in the General Assembly to address the growing challenges in serving at-risk children in Tennessee, and quite frankly, across the country.
The needs of Tennessee children have evolved, and our approach to serving them must evolve too.
We’ve built a team at our Department of Children’s Services that is ready to move forward and provide better services. Our new commissioner, Margie Quin, brings decades of expertise working with the most vulnerable populations in Tennessee, through her service with the TBI and anti-human trafficking non-profits.
With Commissioner Quin at the helm, we’ve already hired dozens of new, qualified caseworkers. DCS caseworkers have an incredibly difficult job, and they deserve our support. Last year, we provided two pay raises for caseworkers, and I intend to boost their pay again in this budget.
We’re also proposing more than $190 million in additional resources to support the mission at DCS and provide for the safety and well-being of Tennessee children.
There’s a lot more work to do, but I believe we have the right plan and the right team to get it done.
This is all part of our broader strategy to support strong Tennessee families, and we have big goals.
In 2021, we launched Tennessee Fosters Hope. This year, I’m proposing a new $10 million grant program to support the mission of foster and adoption nonprofits in our state.
Last year, Tennessee’s budget funded ultrasound machines at crisis pregnancy clinics across the state. This year, I’m proposing a $100 million grant program to partner with nonprofits that serve mothers, fathers, and families during a crisis pregnancy.
With that, our Office of Faith-Based Initiatives has a unique ability – and an important opportunity – to engage nonprofits and community organizations. I believe it’s time to equip them with the resources they need to play a bigger role, as we endeavor to better serve children and families.
From strengthening DCS services to expanding care for families, these challenges are not easy to solve. But if we start from our commitment to human dignity, we will get it done.
Strong families are the building blocks of society – in our communities, in our state and as a country. The love and support that fills tight-knit homes spreads outward, building up neighborhoods, churches, volunteer organizations, and all the other institutions that help to bind us together.
One way we can support and strengthen families is by making it possible for parents to be there, worry-free, for every second of those first months of life. If we can strengthen the bond between parents and children from the very first moments, we will have truly done something important.
That’s why I am proposing a commonsense paid parental-leave program for state employees who are growing their family.
This is not a mandate on businesses. I believe every business owner should make decisions that are in the best interest of their employees.
Our state workers are critical to Tennessee’s success. That’s why we increased the base pay for state employees last fall, and we intend to issue more raises this year.
A reasonable paid leave program will help us retain the best and brightest and help those who help our state, resulting in stronger families across Tennessee.
From Mountain City to Memphis, our state is blessed with natural beauty and rich resources.
As a kid growing up in Tennessee, I remember going to Fall Creek Falls State Park to hike and fish with my family. And just last year, Maria and I took our grandchildren camping in Cumberland Mountain State Park. When our grandchildren are our age, I’d sure like them to visit state parks with their grandkids.
Our state parks are a jewel, and they’ll only be around for the future if we invest in them today.
Through the years, Tennessee has maintained responsible stewardship of our natural resources, but it’s time to develop a conservation strategy that balances our state’s economic growth with a plan to protect our environment.
I believe Tennessee’s vision for conservation can start like this:
The most accessible park system in the nation – regardless of your zip code, physical ability, or demographics, you and your family should be able to enjoy outdoor experiences close to home.
To achieve that, my proposed budget will improve and expand three additional state natural areas, build two new park lodges, complete four more outdoor trails, and create four new state parks.
Across Tennessee, we have 175 former industrial sites, called brownfields, where toxic waste has created the potential for environmental hazard. I believe we owe it to the people of Tennessee to clean this up.
I’m proposing legislation to revitalize all 175 brownfields – to restore them environmentally, prepare them for economic development, and make them safe for our great-grandchildren.
This matters to all of Tennessee, but especially for rural Tennessee. And it’s time to get it done.
If we really want to contribute to the future of America’s environment, we must contribute to the advancement of clean energy.
As Washington debates an agenda that overregulates and pushes the burden on everyday people, Tennessee is looking for real solutions through innovation.
We have a solution that is cheap, clean, and reliable.
No other state in the country comes close to Tennessee’s legacy, resources, and potential to be a leader in nuclear energy. And there is no long-term national strategy that doesn’t include nuclear energy.
That’s why, tonight, I’m proposing $50 million in a Nuclear Fast Track fund to recruit companies to our state that will specifically establish a nuclear development and manufacturing ecosystem built for the future of Tennessee.
We cannot not pass up this opportunity. Tennessee can and should be the leader in nuclear energy for America.
As Governor, I have the privilege of traveling across the state and meeting Tennesseans from all walks of life.
Last fall, I met a man in Crossville who had just moved his family all the way from New York. He said to me, “When I moved to Tennessee, I felt like I moved back to America.”
In many ways, our country is off track. But America’s best days are not behind her.
If the rest of the country can learn one thing from leading states like Tennessee, it’s that when you trust your people, you’ll succeed. The most elite, most educated people don’t always know best – the everyday American people know best.
We’ve had crises in the last few years that have challenged that notion, but as long as we believe in ‘We the People’, our country will stay on this imperfect path to a more perfect union.
Tennesseans have accomplished remarkable things in our 226-year history. Once again, we are called to be a guiding light and carry the spirit that took our state from frontier to frontrunner.
So, as I look ahead to the next four years – with four challenging, yet fruitful years in the rearview – I can see that we’ve arrived at a pivotal moment.
After winning the battle in 1918, Sergeant Alvin C. York and his seven men marched back to American lines. York reported to his brigade commander, and in an effort to explain the unbelievable victory that he had just secured, York humbly said, “A higher power than man guided and watched over me.”
Perhaps, the greatest lesson in Sergeant York’s story is not found in his heroic actions on the battlefield, but in his incredible humility and in the way he served after that – when he returned home to rural Tennessee and relentlessly used his own success to make life better for future generations.
As leaders, may we all be inspired to serve in that way.
In my first state of the state, I said, “If we lead Tennessee well, Tennessee may well lead the nation.”
Tennessee is leading. The question is, will we lead in a way that lasts – in a way that our grandchildren are equipped and inspired to pick up where we left off?
I believe we can, and I look forward to pursuing that with all of you, this year and three more after that.
May the Lord continue to pour out his favor and bless the people of the great state of Tennessee.
Thank you, and Goodnight.