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2020 State of the State Address

Thank you very much.

Lieutenant Governor McNally, Speaker Sexton, Speaker Pro Tem Haile, Speaker Pro Tem Dunn, Members of the 111th General Assembly, Justices, Constitutional Officers, fellow Tennesseans:

It is an honor to once again be with you this evening.

Before I begin, Speaker Sexton, let me offer special congratulations to you on your election as Speaker.

I am looking forward to working with you during this session and in the years ahead as we make our state a leader in the nation.

Last year, I stood at this podium, newly inaugurated as the 50th Governor of Tennessee.

It has been a rewarding year, far more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

To serve Tennesseans, to help make their lives better, to help give them a better education, to help recruit and create good jobs, and to help make our state a leader in the nation, it has been a humbling and truly honorable experience.

To serve with you, the men and women of the General Assembly, has been a tremendous honor as well.

Thank you for your support during my first year, it means an awful lot to Maria and to me.

With all of the noise in our nation these days, whether it comes from Washington, or New York, or Hollywood, I can’t help but look across this room in Tennessee and be inspired.

Inspired by every man and woman in this chamber who sacrifices much and who is dedicated to their beliefs and to the service of their neighbors.

Thank you for what you do, and I look forward to working alongside each of you this session and in the years ahead.

Our state also has another dedicated servant here in this room tonight – our First Lady Maria Lee.

She has been advocating tirelessly in the past year, launching her Tennessee Serves initiative and encouraging her fellow Tennesseans to join her in serving our neighbors.

She’s hit the ground running, and Tennesseans have gotten to see what I’ve known for a long time.

Maria, I love you, and Tennessee is fortunate to have you as our First Lady.

My family is here, and I’m especially glad to have my mother, Ann Lee, here tonight as well.

Thank you for being here.

As I begin tonight, I’d also like to thank my cabinet and my staff.

I am proud of you all and the high level of expertise and dedication that you lend to the people of Tennessee each day.

Thank you for your hard work - keep it going - Tennessee is counting on you.

Serving as your governor over the past year, I have seen a lot of good that we can be proud of.

In 2019, we were for the first time named the number one best fiscally managed state in the country.

We’ve been named as the best business climate in the country.

We’re number one in the U.S. for advanced industry job growth and the best state for small business growth.

In the past year, this state has garnered 108 project commitments to create 16,500 jobs and $3.6 billion of capital investment in Tennessee.

And while we still have more work to do on rural economic development, I’m also proud that more than half of these projects have been announced in rural counties.

This year, Mitsubishi, FedEx-Logistics, JNJ, Pilot.com, Hyosung, Amazon, Smile Direct, Icee, and dozens of other companies made expansions in or relocations to Tennessee.

We are the envy of many states.

We’re not just being noticed by our fellow southern states – we’re gaining recognition from all across the country.

Over the last year, I visited every county in our state for the third time, and in every place I went, I saw Tennesseans working to make our state better.

Tonight, we gather to celebrate the state of our state and discuss ways to continue our momentum, but you and I know the successes we enjoy belong to the 6.8 million hard-working Tennesseans who sent us here.

We work for the people of Tennessee, and when you get back to your districts this weekend, you can tell your bosses, the people, this: I’ve seen it with my own eyes, the state of our state is healthy and strong. So, let’s work together to keep it that way.

I’m proud of what we accomplished together in our first year, and I’m excited about what’s to come.

In education, we made kids in our schools safer when we invested $30 million new dollars to support school safety and resource officers.

As you know, we launched two major school choice initiatives this year as well.

Our first independent charter school authorizer will ensure quality oversight and accountability for our state’s public charter schools.

We created the Tennessee Education Savings Account Program, which will serve low-income students in districts with the highest number of low-performing schools.

Disruption is hard and sometimes controversial.

But we cannot expect extraordinarily different outcomes without extraordinarily different inputs, so I’m proud of these initiatives, and I look forward to their success.

That said, the vast majority of our students are educated in traditional public schools, and the majority of our efforts must remain focused there.

Through my travels this year, I’ve been in dozens of schools from one end of Tennessee to the other.

I always learn something when I visit with students. But, when I visit with teachers, I’m inspired.

In this building, we work hard to develop student-centered education policies, but out there in the classrooms is where it happens.

We make it law, but teachers make it happen.

No teacher I know does it only for the money, but you and I know a worker is worthy of their pay.

Teaching is a calling.

We know it is passion that brings teachers to the classroom, but we also know our teachers deserve to be paid more for the important work they do.

Last year, I proposed, and you approved, more than $70 million to support increases in teacher salaries.

This year, I’m proposing the largest investment in K-12 teacher salaries in Tennessee history.

My budget sets aside $117 million additional dollars for teachers, an amount equal to a 4% increase in the state’s contribution to teacher salaries.

We must also work harder to make teaching a more attractive profession for young people.

We know our new teacher numbers are dropping.

As our economy becomes more competitive for jobs, investing in workforce development must include developing the next generation of educators.

Over the next two years, we will recommend moving the minimum salary schedule for teachers from $36,000 to $40,000, so that no Tennessee teacher is making less than $40,000 per year.

This change to the salary schedule will reward teachers across the state while also making the teaching profession even more appealing to young people considering the high call of becoming an educator.

This year, we'll apply to create an AP education teaching course and launch a new series of grants to support district "Grow-Your-Own" programs that support the development of a future teacher as early as high school.

We're also taking the “Grow-Your-Own” concept one step further.

My budget includes $8.5 million to support the launch of the Governor's Teaching Fellowship, an initiative that will, in conjunction with Tennessee Promise, provide a college scholarship for over 1,000 of our best and brightest as they train to become teachers.

One of the reasons we’re making these investments is because, when it comes to educating our children, there may be nothing more important than recruiting, retaining, and training the best teachers in America in Tennessee.

To our higher education leaders, I want to say thank you for the work you've put in these last several years to improve how we train the next generation of teachers.

But we cannot afford to rest on our laurels.

That's why our Department of Education will be working much more closely with our schools of education, to ensure that our approach to training teachers is the best in the nation.

In that spirit, I’m excited to announce a first of its kind competition to develop the best teacher preparation program in the world, right here in Tennessee.

The Tennessee Teacher and Leader Institute will solicit proposals from across the country to help launch a new initiative that will build the best educator preparation program in the nation.

Make no mistake: we will do whatever it takes to make Tennessee the best state in America to be a student, and that means making Tennessee the best state in America to be a teacher.

That means better pay, as we’ve said, but it also means better training and professional support, so that our teachers can perform at the top of their trade.

We’re investing $4 million to support professional development opportunities for school leaders and innovative career advancement opportunities for our best-performing teachers.

One thing we hear from those teachers, is that many students arrive at school with a host of personal and family issues that classroom teachers don’t have the bandwidth to handle.

It creates a nightmare decision for the teacher - when a student is struggling, they can either stop the learning process for everyone else in the classroom to help the one student or ignore that student’s needs.

Indeed, our mental health challenges in schools are not just anecdotal.

The data supports our concerns.

One in five children has a mental health diagnosis in a given year, and over 60% of children who receive mental health services do so in schools.

The youth suicide rate increased 56% in last decade, making it the second leading cause of death of young people age 10-24.

Scores of teachers and principals, as well as our education commissioner, have pleaded for reinforcements from the state to help schools tackle the mental health and other challenges that students bring with them into the classroom.

Tonight, that help is on the way.

First, we're expanding the outreach capacity of our Department of Mental Health, growing our school-based behavioral health liaison program from 36 counties to all 95 counties.

Second, I'm proposing the creation of a new reserve: a K-12 Mental Health Trust Fund of $250 million in one-time funds to support the growth and placement of mental health support services in our most-at-risk schools.

We will seek private donations to grow the fund over time and use the earnings to make investments for years to come.

It is our expectation that Tennessee will lead the nation in bringing mental health support to our teachers and to our students, and we’re very proud of that.

In previous years, we've led the nation in other respects, particularly in student growth on our NAEP scores.

That achievement is due to the hard work of many in this room, as well as leaders who've come before us, and our hard-working teachers.

Right now, our biggest academic challenge for our students is literacy.

Currently, only one-third of our third graders are reading on grade level.

Years later, this leads to nearly three out of four students who cannot read their high school level textbooks on the first day of school.

Literacy is the foundation for a student's educational journey.

And if we can’t get early childhood literacy back on track, all of our other investments and work in education will be limited.

This year, I'm recommending a new, comprehensive approach to literacy.

I'm introducing legislation to establish new, clearer standards for the training of new teachers and the development of current teachers, grounded in the evidence and science of reading, with proven methods like phonics-based instruction.

We will ensure adequate supports and interventions for students before they reach the critical third-grade milestone.

But moving the needle on early childhood literacy requires more than talk - that’s why I’m also proposing an additional investment of $70 million to make sure teachers have what they need to accomplish the task at hand.

It’s a partnership with districts that will include improved materials, ongoing professional development, and high-quality instructional tools for teachers in the classroom.

Fully funding BEP growth, 4% teacher 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.

So, when you’re back home in your districts this year, if someone tells you we’re not supporting public education, they’re not telling the truth.

We’re making these changes and these investments because we want our public schools to be excellent.

But, how will we know if we’re succeeding?

On one hand, Tennessee moved up nine places on the NAEP in our best-performing area of math, and we avoided the national trend of backsliding on past gains.

On the other hand, the true measure of a successful education system is a cohort of high school graduates who are well-prepared to be productive citizens, whether they choose a career or college.

To me, education isn't just about a test score.

Assessments are valuable tools, but if the adults in education are doing their job correctly, they won't just see academic statistics improve, they'll see the most important stat of all improve:

That our students are prepared to become productive members of society, whether that's entering the workforce, attending college, or earning a high-quality industry credential.

This past year, we’ve placed special emphasis on career readiness.

I’m proud of the GIVE Act that this legislature approved last year, which allowed us to grant $25 million to schools across our state who are helping young adults earn industry certification earlier than ever before.

This year, we launched 28 new work-based learning programs, 18 of which are in rural distressed counties.

Some of my favorite days as governor have been traveling to this state’s rural counties to deliver a GIVE Grant to launch a new CTE program.

As I stand in a welding shop, I get to look into the eyes of students who, maybe for the first time, are excited about what they are doing at school.

I look at them and say, “You have a unique ability to connect your brain to your hands that a lot of students don’t have.”

I tell them, “We need you. We need your skills. Your communities need you.”

And I say to them, “Stay in your rural county, and build it. Put those gifts and skills to work in your own backyard. We need you.”

I’m also proud of the Future Workforce Initiative, which is adding 100 new middle school STEM programs by 2022 and tripling the number of STEM-designated schools.

Through this work, we’ve seen a 100% increase in the number of schools applying to receive STEM-designation.

I'm also proud of our Department of Labor and Workforce Development, who in partnership with the Trump Administration has launched new investments in youth apprenticeships.

Our workforce cabinet members have done a great job this year.

For the first time, state agencies who are involved in workforce development are beginning to pull in the same direction, and their work is already paying off.

The first outcome of that work will be next week’s launch of ApprenticeshipTN, a new effort that will realign our approach to getting individuals back into the workforce.

For those who do take advantage of our state’s excellent higher education system, we want to make sure that high-quality facilities and standards await them to give them the best possible chance of success.

Last week, the Higher Education Commission released an update to our state's five-year Master Plan, shifting the focus from degrees to jobs.

We're moving forward with bold new goals such as increasing by 10% the number of dual enrollment students and increasing by 20% the number of Tennessee degrees in computer science and data analytics.

In addition to large investments in our salary pool and our outcomes-based funding formula, I’ve set aside nearly $160 million for capital improvements and $70 million for capital maintenance projects on our college campuses.

For the time being, we must continue to produce highly skilled workers as fast as we can on whatever track, so that we can keep feeding the tremendous job growth that we’ve seen across Tennessee.

This year, I met with CEOs and business leaders in Silicon Valley, South Korea, and many places in between who are looking to invest in Tennessee because of the low-tax, conservative approach to government we've developed.

As I mentioned, more than 16,000 jobs have been created across Tennessee over the last year, but too few of them have been in our distressed and at-risk counties.

That’s why I've instructed the Department of Economic and Community Development to raise the stakes when it comes to recruiting industry to rural areas.

I’ve directed ECD to restructure our incentive package to companies considering locating in our 15 distressed counties and 24 at-risk counties.

Speaking of our 15 distressed counties, with us tonight are the mayors from those counties.

Please stand and be recognized - I’m proud you’re here.

For the last several years, our strong economy has been feeding a very healthy budget, and the leaders in this room should be commended for their good stewardship.

Conservative principles work, and as I enter my second year as governor, I pledge to you to continue to lead our state in the direction of conservative fiscal management.

As you know, I asked each of our departments for a 1% budget cut last year, and they responded with cuts totaling 1.7% - $91 million trimmed from our state budget.

A few months ago, I traveled to New York with our constitutional officers and Speaker Sexton to meet with bond rating agencies, sharing our story of fiscal responsibility and consistent results.

They rewarded our collective effort once again with a Triple-A bond rating from all three rating agencies, one of only 13 states to achieve this.

Indeed, our economy is strong, and a rising tide lifts all boats.

It’s only fair that when the state is fiscally healthy, some of that money be returned to the taxpayer.

Tonight, I am announcing a proposal to cut the professional privilege tax in half and return $40 million to individuals and small business owners who every year pay this arbitrary and unfair tax.

Indeed, the state is seeing strong economic times, but many of our local governments are struggling financially, and we certainly don’t want to see any local tax increases.

In many of the counties I have visited throughout the past year, community leaders almost always tell me about projects or initiatives that could transform their counties, if only they could find funding.

And certainly, on many issues, local government knows better than we do how to direct resources.

For that reason, my budget proposal recommends $100 million for local government grants to be divided among every county and every municipality across our state.

This money can be used for one-time expenses such as road projects, I.T. upgrades, capital maintenance, utility system upgrades, and public safety projects.

Last year, we made the largest single contribution in our state’s history to our Rainy-Day Fund, bringing the total to $1.1 billion.

Very few states have minimal debt and a growing Rainy-Day Fund, and this year we propose making an additional $50 million contribution, which is 20% more than the statutory requirement.

Even as we save for a rainy day in Nashville, we know that not all parts of our state are seeing the same successes.

You might have heard that rural Tennessee is a priority of mine.

My first executive order focused the attention of state government on rural areas, and later I gathered my cabinet in Perry County for the first-ever Governor’s Rural Opportunity Summit where we met with leaders from each of our distressed counties.

We invested $20 million in my first budget for broadband expansion to increase services in rural areas that need it most, and this year I am pleased to recommend an additional $25 million investment.

Maria, maybe this will be the year we finally get broadband on the farm.

I'm also recommending $20 million for ECD's Rural Opportunity Fund, which supports site development, main-street development, and critical infrastructure assistance.

We expanded an incentive program in Tennessee medical schools that will grow the pipeline of primary care doctors locating in rural communities.

This year, we plan to do even more for rural Tennessee.

We’re adding more than $4 million for payment increases to rural health clinics and expanding rural access to dental care through the Department of Health and a new public-private partnership with SmileTN.

We’re adding $7 million to the Ag Enhancement program and an additional $2 million for UT Extension Agents in distressed rural counties.

The Department of Tourism has created an Office of Rural Tourism, and we’ve set aside nearly $2.4 million for their efforts to draw attention to beautiful parts of Tennessee that are off the beaten path.

We’re making these investments because, as our state’s elected leaders, we must remain aware of serving every part and every person of our state.

That’s why I’ve made criminal justice reform such a large priority, because every person in Tennessee wants and deserves to live in a safe neighborhood.

When properly implemented, criminal justice reforms save taxpayer dollars, shrink the size of government, properly punish wrongdoers, and make our communities safer.

Last year, we gave correctional officers a long-overdue pay raise to make Tennessee more competitive with other states.

We added basic education and CTE options for inmates on a path to reentry so they would be better prepared for life on the outside.

This legislature passed each of our proposals last year, and I’m proud to bring to you another set of proposals this year.

First and foremost, we must be tough on crime.

Last year, we cracked down on fentanyl traffickers, and this year I propose increasing the criminal penalties associated with theft of a firearm and increasing the criminal penalties associated with reckless endangerment of a police officer or first responder.

But 95% of incarcerated individuals are not serving a life sentence, which means one day they will leave prison and return to a community near you.

It’s in the best interest of your family and community that those individuals be prepared to make that reentry successfully, instead of returning to a life of crime.

My Criminal Justice Investment Task Force recently issued 23 recommendations on how we can improve in these areas, and I would like to thank the eight legislators and many other Tennesseans who have given their time and energy to developing thoughtful recommendations.

This year, based on those recommendations, I plan to propose legislation that will improve our probation and parole systems.

First, we want to expand our recovery courts so that veterans and those struggling with addiction or mental health challenges will have access to specialized supervision.

Second, we want to improve our use of community supervision, including at the end of a prison sentence.

Nearly 40% of those leaving our prisons do so with no oversight, and all too often those individuals are the ones who need it most.

Third, we want to encourage those leaving prison to secure employment by revising the occupational licensing process and encouraging employers to hire the formerly incarcerated.

By drawing upon evidence-based best practices, we are confident that outcomes for those on community supervision will improve, and our communities will be safer.

We need to be sure that these individuals are prepared to re-enter society and not re-enter prison.

Another way we’re preparing individuals to leave prison is through the recently created Volunteer Mentorship Initiative.

We launched in the Fall, and already more than two dozen inmates have been matched with legislators and members of my staff to begin thinking about what life looks like at the end of their prison sentence.

Our second round of mentors have just been matched, and they will be doing their orientation in the next few weeks.

Even more exciting, hundreds of Tennesseans have reached out to express interest in becoming mentors, and we will be including them in this process very soon.

And by the way, if you’re interested in serving as a mentor, you can sign up on my website.

I’d like to talk about one other public safety budget item we’re proposing.

For many Tennesseans, the only interaction they have with their government is the Driver Services Division at the Department of Safety.

Tennesseans deserve to have great interactions with our state government, and I have asked our Department of Safety to take steps to improve experiences at our Drivers Service Centers.

I am proposing 80 additional positions and funding to assist in decreasing wait times for our customers as they answer the federal mandate to obtain a REAL ID.

Another issue that impacts every person in this state is health care.

Last year, we added $3.5 million to the Health Care Safety Net to help provide direct care to uninsured adults.

This year, I’m proposing an additional $6.5 million recurring to this program.

The resulting $17 million in total annual funding would be the highest of any year since the program was created in 2005.

We’re also setting aside more than $7.5 million to create a Children’s Behavioral Health Safety Net.

This initiative will work to ensure that no child in need of critical behavioral health services is unable to access them.

Solving our health care challenges requires more than just increased funding - we have to be innovative and thoughtful as well.

With the encouragement of this legislature, I’m proud that Tennessee was the first state in America to apply for a Medicaid block grant from the federal government.

Tennessee runs the most efficient Medicaid system in the country, and the result is that we are one of only a few states who underspend the federal government’s estimate for what it should cost to cover our population.

Our proposal to the federal government is that we get to share those savings and spend them to cover more services and more people.

While we do not yet know whether this proposal will be accepted, I am confident that what we’ve proposed would be a good deal for Tennesseans and that no Tennessean would be worse off if it is approved.

Under the proposed budget, my Administration will fund the third year of the Rural Hospital Transformation Program.

And this time next year, we’ll be in a position to consider recommendations from the Health Care Modernization Task Force.

Throughout this past year, Commissioner McWhorter held multiple listening sessions across the state to better understand the concerns and priorities of patients, providers, and payers.

Building on that foundation, they are moving ahead to find innovative working solutions on how our state can better provide access to quality health care that all Tennesseans can afford.

Why is it we would make these investments in education, criminal justice, and health care?

Because each of these items help us build what we’re really going after: free and thriving citizens within healthy families and communities.

I'm proud that under our proposal Tennessee would become the first state in America to offer 12 weeks of paid family leave to eligible state employees who experience a significant life event.

I’m proud of our state workers and offering them this benefit will help us continue to retain the best and brightest and help those who help our state.

This budget also proposes changes to our TennCare program that will benefit young families.

We know infant mortality and maternal health are challenges for our state.

One in two Tennessee births are covered through our Medicaid program.

That's why we're proposing two new initiatives to expand prenatal and postpartum coverage for our TennCare recipients.

First, we are launching a three-year pilot to extend postpartum coverage to 12 months for mothers covered by TennCare.

We’re also expanding preventive dental services to mothers on TennCare.

My proposal would provide a dental and oral health benefit to pregnant women who do not currently receive dental benefits during the time of pregnancy through 60 days post-delivery.

This will support improved health outcomes for both mother and child.

For me, one of the most important things we can do to be pro-family is to protect the rights of the most vulnerable in our state, and there is none more vulnerable than the unborn.

I’ve proposed legislation that would defend and protect the life of an unborn baby from the time their heartbeat can be detected.

I want to share a personal story that has strengthened my resolve in this very important subject.

A few months ago, my son and his wife had identical twin baby girls, delivered months before they were due, at a time when most babies their size would still be in their mother’s womb.

When I walked into the neonatal intensive care unit, I stared in wonder at a 1lb 5oz baby girl with tubes and cords and monitors, fighting for her life.

As I watched little Annie, I was reminded once again that every life is precious.

Every life is precious, and we will support pro-life policy in this state because everything precious is worth protecting.

My first year as governor has been the most enlightening of my life.

At my age, I thought I’d seen it all, but this job provides a new perspective on our state, its people, and our common challenges.

I’ve been to every county in this state at least three times now.

I’ve seen a lot - some days my heart swells, glad to see a community thriving or a program working.

Other days my heart breaks, frustrated with the failures of an imperfect system and wishing we could do more.

But if I could say one thing to my fellow Tennesseans as I enter my second year as governor, it would be this: I see you.

To the farmer standing in a flooded field, looking over a ruined crop in West Tennessee - I see you.

To the single mom taking night classes at a TCAT, trying to give your family a new opportunity - I see you.

To the young girl with great potential and even greater dreams, stuck in a school that doesn’t meet your needs - I see you.

For the police officer putting your life on the line and the crime victim who has been harmed by a broken justice system - I see you.

To these and the rest of the 6.8 million Tennesseans; you don’t expect government to solve all your problems, but you do expect to get what you pay for - I see you.

We see you.

And we will keep striving to bring good jobs, good schools, and safe neighborhoods to every corner of this state, because that’s what you elected us to do, and that’s what you deserve.

As we conclude tonight, let’s be reminded that the walls around us are the walls of history.

Remarkable men and women have accomplished much in this very building.

In fact, one of the most important decisions in the fabric of our nation was resolved 100 years ago right here.

On August 18, 1920, the Tennessee General Assembly voted to approve the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which enshrined for women the constitutional right to vote.

Even then, 100 years ago, Tennessee was leading the nation, casting the deciding vote in that revolutionary decision.

In this very chamber, the course of American history was changed.

I mentioned earlier that much of our success is owed to those who came before us.

Many of those trailblazers are women.

Our state and country have thrived in great part due to the pivotal role played by women in society and in government.

Can you believe that was only 100 years ago?

History is funny that way - what seems inevitable now would have seemed far from it to those engaged in the day to day struggle for suffrage.

One hundred years later, certainly, our struggles are different.

But as we celebrate the centennial of Tennessee’s role in ratifying the 19th Amendment this year, what I hope we remember is 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.

And 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.