Reflecting on Gov. Lee’s First State of the State Address
BY JUSTIN OWEN
Last night, Gov. Bill Lee gave his first State of the State address. In his speech, he detailed his plans in key areas like tax cuts, preparing for rainy days ahead in the state budget, education reform, public safety, and mental health funding. Below is my take on a few of those issues that relate to our work at Beacon.
The only thing our state legislature is constitutionally obliged to do is balance the state budget each year. Gov. Lee’s budget proposal to the legislature will cut the fairly small but perverse “amusement tax” on gyms, and also set aside enough for the rainy day fund to reach $1.1 billion, the highest it’s ever been. This fund is essentially the state’s savings account that prepares us for revenue shortfalls in the event of an economic downturn. Setting aside this additional funding for future tight times is fiscally responsible, and it’s even better when you can still return some money back to taxpayers in the process.
Education choice advocates and opponents alike have anticipated an announcement that Gov. Lee will pursue an education savings account (ESA) program this year. Indeed, the governor is embracing parental choice in his first year in office. His plan will start by providing ESAs to 5,000 students in low-performing school districts. The program will grow each year to include more children.
Empowering parents with greater choice has long been a priority of Beacon’s. I outlined why in a recent op-ed co-authored with Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville). There’s a really good chance that when this legislative session gavels to a close, parents across our state will finally have the options they deserve to customize their child’s education via ESAs.
Gov. Lee has already unveiled his first year agenda to reform our criminal justice system. While this will hopefully be a multi-year effort, the governor is off to a good start emulating solutions that have made states like Texas a leader in sensible justice reform. Gov. Lee has proposed expanding recovery courts and diversion programs for those with substance abuse problems; eliminating the costly fee that keeps low-income Tennesseans from being able to clear their long-past criminal records (even though state law already allows them to do so); and increasing access to education and vocation programs inside our prisons.
Providing educational options for those in prison can ensure that they become productive, taxpaying citizens when they are released. This will make our communities safer, and the up-front investment of $10.5 million—which represents just five days worth of the cost of incarcerating inmates across our state—could save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in the long run.
When Texas embraced similar reforms to deal with mental health and substance abuse problems outside of the prison system, as well as expand re-entry and education opportunities for those coming out of prison, they saw a sharp decline in their crime rate. Over the last decade, Texas went from needing to open three new prisons to closing eight. Gov. Lee once told me, “When I become governor, we are going to lead the nation in justice reform.” It looks like he is starting to make do on that promise.
All in all, it was a positive, uplifting speech by the new governor, and most importantly it was strong on policy. He has a clear vision for our state, and we look forward to helping pursue meaningful reforms that will make Tennessee a freer, more prosperous place to live, work, and raise a family.