Gov. Bill Lee pitched his new budget to more than 200 local business, health care and education leaders this morning as part of his annual address to the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. Lee delivered his remarks via a virtual conference hosted by the chamber through iBreakthrough.
During the 20-minute address, Lee cited the state’s fiscal prudence throughout the COVID-19 economic downturn, and strong revenue growth, as pivotal components making possible his proposed investments in continued relief for businesses, workforce development and expanded health care services for families.
Lee explained his experience as a business owner, and now as a governor responsible for job creation, shaped his strategy and emphasis during the pandemic and for the new budget. He underscored his responsibility to manage and direct taxpayer dollars into initiatives that will have “the most positive impact” on livelihoods.
Lee said it was personally important to him to balance the livelihoods of Tennesseans when thinking about the state government’s response to COVID-19 and any potential impact on businesses. His professional and political experiences have allowed him to see how government can hinder or help business owners, he noted.
“That's why we were one of the last states to shut down, as it were, and one of the first states to open back up,” Lee said, “because I believed that we could follow data and manage both the economy moving forward and an aggressive approach to the pandemic as well.”
Lee called 2020 a “terrifically challenging year” and recalled how the state’s budget and every legislative initiative had to be swept off the table due to the pandemic and resulting economic downturn, civil unrest and local tragedies, including the March 2-3 tornadoes.
The state, however, saw revenue growth throughout the pandemic, which has put Lee in a “very good position” to craft a “strong budget.” His budget calls for investments in state savings ($50 million); TennCare reserve savings along with coverage expansion for mothers; health care and mental health services for uninsured families and children from low-income families, respectively; and local government infrastructure grants, e.g., small-town Main Street revitalization, deferred capital maintenance projects and workforce development.
“Our focus on the family is an effort to create an environment where not only businesses can thrive, but those who work in those businesses can thrive as well,” Lee said.
Lee stressed the importance of attracting businesses to Tennessee, especially in keeping taxes low and regulations “friendly.”
“A lot of companies around this country are looking to move,” he said.
Lee pointed to the state’s dispersal of federal economic recovery dollars during the pandemic as a further example of fiscal prudency. Those dollars helped keep unemployment insurance premiums steady for employers, provide grants and relief to businesses, and invest $600 million in broadband internet expansion across the state.
Lee recognized the importance of broadband expansion to extend internet access for Tennesseans having to remotely access health care services and job responsibilities due to the pandemic. The new budget proposes an additional investment of $200 million for broadband expansion.
“I believe that in order for us to do business in the new environment, we have got to have greater access to broadband,” Lee said.
The governor concluded his remarks by expressing his hope for continued economic growth in Tennessee despite the strain from the pandemic.
"Out of that comes hope that we can learn from and become better as a result of (these challenges),” Lee said. “That's what I hope for and am excited about.”