state of the state

Who did ‘America at Its Best’ better?

For longtime State of the State watchers, Gov. Bill Lee’s speech on Monday night had something of a familiar ring to it. A recurring theme was the state slogan “Tennessee — America at Its Best.” Lee’s predecessor, Bill Haslam, also made the phrase the focus of the final State of the State address of his first term in office back in 2014.

Here are some excerpts of the respective governor’s rhetorical flourishes about state slogan:

Haslam in 2014Lee in 2022
As I begin my fourth year in office, I am convinced that Tennessee – America at Its Best is not just a 50-year-old slogan.  Over the years, leaders have reminded Tennesseans that America at Its Best is more than our slogan – it’s our north star. However, America at Its Best means something different today than it did in 1965 or even in the last decade.  
Expecting great outcomes will ensure that Tennessee is America at its best. Tennessee fulfills America at Its Best because of our optimism.  
For Tennessee to be America at its best, we must get health care right – for those who need health care coverage and for the long-term fiscal health of our state.  I am proposing a budget and America-at-its-best policies that reinforce freedom, innovation, exceptionalism, and optimism.  
Tennessee is America at its best because we employ one of the best tax strategies of all time – common sense.  If we are to embody America at Its Best, that starts with acknowledging that it is our creator who endows us with freedom, and the government merely maintains that freedom.  
Being America at its best means not doing government business the way we’ve always done it before.  Tennessee – America at Its Best embraces both sides of the coin: we acknowledge our shortcomings but build on our best.  
In the year 2025, 55 percent of Tennesseans will need a certificate or degree beyond high school to get a job. Today, only 32 percent of Tennesseans qualify. To truly be America at its best, that’s not good enough.  In Tennessee, there’s no reason why our institutions of higher learning can’t be an exceptional part of America at Its Best.
I want to take this opportunity to thank Randy Boyd for taking a leave of absence from his company and dedicating a year of his life – at no cost to the state – to work on this. He did it because he loves our state, and he wants Tennessee to be America at its best.  We are also proud to propose a series of research investments to ensure we stay on track to be America at Its Best.  
In Tennessee, we truly are America at its best.May we ensure that the beacon that is Tennessee – America at Its Best – shines brighter than ever before.

Read Gov. Bill Lee’s State of the State address

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State address on Jan. 31, 2022. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Here is Gov. Bill Lee’s State of the State address as prepared for delivery on Monday evening:

Thank you very much. Lieutenant Governor McNally, Speaker Sexton, Speaker Pro Tem Haile, Speaker Pro Tem Marsh, Members of the 112th General Assembly, Justices, Constitutional Officers.

I first want to acknowledge someone who for the last three years has been a steadfast partner to me in this journey.

She has also been a faithful friend to Tennesseans in distressed counties through her Tennessee Serves initiative.

I’m so proud of the work she has done to provide underserved Tennesseans hundreds of thousands of meals, thousands of backpacks, and thousands of shoes for school children.

Tennesseans are proud of you, and I’m proud of you, Maria, our First Lady.

A spirit of humble service matters in times of trial, and it matters in times of prosperity. So I also want to thank members of my Cabinet and staff who are here tonight who have served Tennesseans tirelessly over the last year. I’m thankful for each one of you. Thank you.

To everyone here and to everyone listening across this state, it is the highest honor I have to serve as your governor. I am grateful that you have allowed me to serve in this position.

We stand here today in a different place than we were a year ago, but our gratitude to Tennesseans is unchanged. You have kept this state moving forward.

Tennesseans like the members of the National Guard who have met the worst of circumstances with grit, and yet also provided comfort. Nurses and other health care workers who have cared for the sick. Teachers and administrators who have taught our children. Troopers and police officers and sheriffs deputies who patrol the roads and keep our neighborhoods safe.

Small businesses who have kept their doors open and workers who have worked extra hours to keep our economy moving. You are what makes Tennessee exceptional.

Last June, we commenced Untold Tennessee, a celebration of how the ordinary makes us extraordinary, to commemorate 225 years of statehood. Folks along the way this year have shared with me the deep connection they feel to Tennessee.

Folks like my friend Wally Childress, whose family owns a century farm, Childress Farms, in West Tennessee, and has grown thousands of acres of crops since 1906. Wally and Tracy are with us here tonight. We thank you for representing generations of families that have helped make Tennessee what it is. Please stand up, Wally and Tracy Childress.

For 225 years, Tennessee has been a beacon to those who wanted something more and needed a frontier to build their American dream. In 1965, the General Assembly recognized this and passed a resolution to adopt the state slogan: “Tennessee – America at Its Best”.

Over the years, leaders have reminded Tennesseans that America at Its Best is more than our slogan – it’s our north star. However, America at Its Best means something different today than it did in 1965 or even in the  last decade.

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Lee gives preview of State of the State address, Dems deliver prebuttal

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Republican Gov. Bill Lee is giving a preview of his fourth State of the State address on Monday evening. Democrats, meanwhile, are giving a prebuttal to the governor’s priories for the year.

Here’s the release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee released the following speech excerpts ahead of his fourth State of the State Address that will be delivered tonight at 6 p.m. CT in the House Chamber of the Tennessee State Capitol.

The 2022 address will pay homage to 225 years of statehood by building on the state slogan “Tennessee – America at Its Best”.

Defining “America at Its Best”

Today, our country faces challenges of a different kind, but I believe now more than ever, Tennessee embodies America at Its Best. And in order to ensure that, I am proposing a budget and America at Its Best policies that reinforce freedom, innovation, exceptionalism and optimism.

Guarding Freedom

In recent history, big government has attempted to take over society instead of contributing to it. That’s no way to live, and Tennessee has pushed back on that big government. In fact, Tennessee has recently been ranked as one of the top five freest states in the country.

Protecting Life, Supporting Families

My office has proposed and supported some of the soundest pro-life legislation in the country. Thanks to our partners in the legislature, we passed thoughtful laws that protected the unborn and supported expecting mothers. If the federal courts return full authority to the states, Tennessee’s laws will automatically provide the maximum possible protection and offer a glimmer of redemption as America reconciles our troubled past. I believe Tennessee can be a major part of that reconciliation by offering both hope and resources to families in crisis.

Fiscal Stewardship

We pay a staggering $900 million dollars per day in national debt interest payments. This is a bipartisan problem working within a broken system, but states with balanced budgets offer a guide to what could be if Washington would just act. While Washington saddles our kids with trillions of dollars of debt, Tennessee’s strong fiscal position allows us to instead invest on their behalf.

Powering the Economy

Make no mistake – Tennessee is “Working People USA” and we will do whatever it takes to train and retrain Tennesseans so that both our businesses and our families can thrive.

And here is the video response from House Democratic Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie of Nashville:

Lee to deliver last State of the State of his first term on Jan. 31

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee is scheduled to deliver his fourth State of the State address –the last of his first term in office — on Monday, Jan. 31. Lee is seeking a second term this fall.

Here’s the release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced he will deliver his fourth State of the State address to the General Assembly and fellow Tennesseans on Monday, January 31 at 6 p.m. CT. The joint session will take place in the House Chamber of the Tennessee State Capitol.

“I look forward to sharing my vision for Tennessee, including my budget and legislative priorities for the year,” said Gov. Lee. “Tennessee shows the rest of the country that America hasn’t lost her way, and with the support of the General Assembly, we’ll continue to ensure Tennessee is a national leader for opportunity and freedom.”

The address can be found on Gov. Lee’s Facebook and YouTube channels and will be aired statewide.

Lee speech shorter, but hardly short

Frequently used terms in Gov. Bill Lee’s three State of the State addresses (via MonkeyLearn)

Bill Lee’s third State of the State address clocked in at 42 minutes on Monday evening. That was still on the long side of budget addresses for Tennessee governors, but a good deal shorter than his previous two speeches.

Lee’s first State of the State in 2019 was 5,994 words long and lasted 57 minutes. Last year’s address came in at 5,493 words. But this year’s speech totaled 4,506 words as prepared for delivery.

For some historical perspective of State of the State speeches, see this TNJ: On the Hill analysis of a couple years ago:

A word cloud analysis processed through MonkeyLearn reveals Lee’s most frequently used terms over her his last three speeches:

  1. State (162 times)
  2. Tennessee/Tennessean (157 times)
  3. Year (126 times)
  4. School (71 times)
  5. Students (57 times)
  6. Teachers (56 times)
  7. Budget (43 times)
  8. Dollars (36 times)
  9. Investment (33 times)
  10. Health care (15 times)

Full text of Gov. Bill Lee’s State of the State address

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Here is Gov. Bill Lee’s third State of the State address, as prepared for delivery on Monday evening:

Lieutenant Governor McNally, Speaker Sexton, Speaker Pro Tem Haile, Speaker Pro Tem Marsh, Members of the 112th General Assembly, Justices, Constitutional Officers, fellow Tennesseans:

I would also like to acknowledge the First Lady who is in the audience.
Maria serves our state with genuine compassion and is my partner in every aspect of this role.

I love you and am proud that you are ours.

I also share my gratitude to members of my Cabinet and staff who are here tonight.

Each of these men and women have committed to lives of service and honor.

They are battle-tested and I am proud of their work and their friendship.
Members of the General Assembly, let me say that it’s good to be here in person.

Last year, we stood together at the starting line of 2020 ready for a challenge and even more ready to leave our mark on what was sure to be a historic year for our state.

The events that would take place just a few weeks after, would set the tone for our year.

An unimaginable one for us that included the rise of a global pandemic, devastating tornadoes, flooding, violence, unrest, economic collapse, a downtown explosion and witnessing our nation undergo painful turmoil at the highest levels of government.

There have been heartbreaking losses.

We mourn the more than 10,000 Tennesseans we have lost in those deadly events this year.

In many respects, what was optimism has become a tempered feeling of resolve, and perhaps even cautiousness about what lies ahead in 2021 as we move forward but work to make sense of it all.

Scripture has a lot to say about that crossroads and what to do on the heels of suffering.

Where do we find the promise in this season?

The promise is found in perseverance, which produces character that leads to hope.

Tennesseans will know tonight that tragedy has no hold on who we are or where we are headed.

Tragedy will not define us and will not rob us of the opportunity that 2021 holds.

In fact, this year holds its own unique place for our state as we celebrate 225 years of statehood.

Since 1796, our state has been the portrait of perseverance, character and hope because of everyday heroes.

Ordinary Tennesseans are more than constituents – they are the strength of our state and the lifeblood of our country.

From early settlers, the farmers and factory workers, teachers and tradesmen, doctors and pastors.

We will celebrate that since 1796 the ordinary has made us extraordinary and remember that generations before us have not just weathered but excelled in the cycle of perseverance, character and hope.

I will once again travel to all 95 counties to reach the unsung people and places that make our state who she is.

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Effort falls short to designate site of State of State as House chamber for a night (UPDATED)

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Senate passed a resolution seeking to remedy legal questions raised by The Tennessee Journal about holding the annual State of the State address outside the state Capitol, but the House didn’t take the measure up before the speech took place.

Under a 1970s-era law, the governor’s annual budget address must be given to a joint convention of the General Assembly in the House chamber. But Gov. Bill Lee gave his speech within the nearby War Memorial Auditorium on Monday evening.

While the War Memorial Auditorium is part of the Capitol complex and offers more space for social distancing, it does not meet the description of the House chamber. The Senate passed SJR100, which would have declared that “that for the sole purpose of hearing the state of the state address by the governor on February 8, 2021, the War Memorial Auditorium shall serve as ‘the chamber of the house of representatives.'”

But the House didn’t take up the measure before heading across the street to hear from the governor.

Gov. Lee’s annual State of the State won’t be held in the state Capitol. But is that legal?

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

In the interest of social distancing, tonight’s State of the State address has been relocated to the War Memorial Auditorium. There’s just one problem: State law requires the annual address to be given inside the state Capitol.

A 1973 newspaper ad.

Governors used to deliver their annual State of the State speeches to the Tennessee Press Association. Lawmakers didn’t like that arrangement, so they changed the law in the 1970s to require the speech to be given before a joint convention of the General Assembly gathered in the House chamber.

It’s not the first time Gov. Bill Lee’s plans for the State of the State have raised questions. Following his 2018 election, Lee announced he’d try to get out of the “bubble of Nashville” by delivering the annual address at various locations around the state.

Those plans were thwarted by the same state law requiring the speech to be given in the state Capitol, the Associated Press reported at the time.

“Bill will give the State of the State speech in the House Chamber each year as mandated by the statute,” a Lee spokeswoman told the AP in 2018. “But he also plans to give addresses outside of Nashville around the State of the State to engage with Tennesseans.”

UPDATE: Lawmakers point to a joint resolution passed by both chambers on voice votes in January that said the House and Senate would meet “in the War Memorial Auditorium for the purpose of hearing the State of the State address by the Honorable Bill Lee, Governor of Tennessee.”

But the state law says the General Assembly “shall” call a joint convention “to convene in the chamber of the House of Representatives.” Whether the statute gives lawmakers the leeway to call a meeting outside of the House chamber is a matter of interpretation.

Lee gives preview to annual budget address

Gov. Bill Lee is giving a preview to his annual State of the State address in a video released Monday morning.

Democrats on Friday made their prebuttal, which can be viewed here:

Here are some excerpts from Lee’s speech issued from a press release sent Monday:

Budget and Legislative Priorities

“We have conservative proposals for your consideration that will reduce crime, support strong families and get our economy back up to speed, especially in rural Tennessee. Our proposals honor the individual yet benefit the state as a whole, and they will leave us well-positioned for the recovery that has already begun across our state.”

Celebrating 225 Years of Statehood

“We will celebrate that since 1796 the ordinary has made us extraordinary and remember that generations before us have not just weathered but excelled in the cycle of perseverance, character and hope. I will once again travel to all 95 counties to reach the unsung people and places that make our state who she is.”

Vision for K-12 Education

“The reason we place so much focus on education is because students should be prepared for productive lives, not just the latest standardized test. I recently had a conversation with Commissioner Schwinn that the mission of the Department of Education should be simple: Students should be prepared for life beyond the classroom.”

Rural Investment

“Whether it’s running a small business, accessing virtual learning or accessing health care via telemedicine, slow internet speeds have many in rural Tennessee left at a disadvantage. A significant, one-time investment, combined with significant private investment, will get broadband to just about every community in Tennessee, and tonight, that’s exactly what I’m proposing.”

Pro-Life & Pro-Family

“But being pro-life isn’t just about defending the unborn and we must also think about how to use our passion for this issue to improve the lives of struggling families. My administration is preparing a number of new initiatives that we’ll announce throughout the year that will make Tennessee a national leader in foster care and adoption.”

Lee’s $40.8B budget proposal in the media

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Here’s a look at how Gov. Bill Lee’s second State of the State address played in the state media:

Chattanooga Times Free Press:

Lee, whose wife Maria is a former teacher, zeroed in on education during much of his speech, noting that “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.”

Daily Memphian:

Saying the “majority” of the state’s efforts must focus on traditional public schools, Lee said he is putting a $117 million increase into teacher and educator salaries, a 4% pay increase designed to push starting teacher pay to $38,000 a year.

“We make it law, but teachers make it happen,” Lee said. “No teacher I know does it only for the money, but you and I know a worker is worthy of their pay.”

Associated Press

Education advocates caution that even with a $117 million boost, it may not be enough to help teacher salaries.

“While that is a large yearly increase, it breaks down to about $1,450 per teacher, or approximately $28 a week,” said Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association, when talking about the state’s approximately 80,000 instructional staffers.

WPLN-FM

Criminal justice reform was among some issues notably lacking details. Lee, who has been an advocate, had hinted in the past that he’d focus on reforming the state’s criminal justice system. Lee said that based on recommendations made by the Criminal Justice Investment Task Force, he will propose legislation that improves community supervision and expand recovery courts.

The Tennessean:

Overall, the mood inside the House chamber was jovial, with Republicans praising Lee’s assessment and vision for Tennessee. Democrats later criticized the governor for doing too little, too late on issues like education funding and criminal justice reform.

With a proposed $40.8 billion budget, Lee’s most significant plans for the year include notable increases in public school teacher pay and the creation of the new endowment fund.

Nashville Scene:

Helping partially fulfill another Republican priority, Lee said he wants to cut the professional privilege tax from $400 to $200. In 2019, lawmakers and the governor teamed to reduce the number of professions subject to the tax. The $200 reduction in the tax — still applied to money managers, lawyers and other professionals — will cost the state $40 million.  Lee called the privilege tax “arbitrary and unfair.”

And for good measure, Tennessean reporter Natalie Allison and photog George Walker teamed up for this gem: A photo of Rep. Kent Calfee swigging from a chocolate syrup bottle on the House floor while clutching crackers in his other hand. The bottle is a favorite prop of the Lenoir Republican, who claims to drink water out of it to amuse his grandchildren. Allison’s tweet had received nearly 10,000 likes by Tuesday morning and 2,700 retweets.

The photo also ran on the front pages of the print editions of The Tennessean and the Knoxville News Sentinel.

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