Here is the text of Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s first state of the state speech delivered before a joint session of the Tennessee General Assembly:

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

Tennessee’s voters and its constitution have given me the responsibility of delivering this address evaluating where we are as a state and recommending action to make us even better.

I am grateful for this opportunity to serve, and it is my high honor to be here tonight. There’s a scripture that encourages us to consider others as more important than ourselves.

Before I begin tonight, I’d like to acknowledge the woman in my life who embodies that most, my wife and the first Lady of Tennessee, Maria.

You and I have a First Lady who is deeply committed to serving this state purposefully and she challenges me every day to likewise govern with purpose.

Thank you, Maria. I love you.

And let me say welcome and thank you to my Cabinet, and my staff; you’re doing an excellent job and you make us all proud.

The year my oldest daughter Jessica turned 16, she and I took a father-daughter trip for her birthday. We had both been through some very personal and tragic struggles and we decided to do something that would be “overcoming.”

We traveled to Wyoming to the Grand Teton National Park to climb one of the tallest mountains in the United States.

It’s a difficult and technical climb, and we spent months preparing both physically and mentally.

The apex of our trip would carry us to 14,000 feet above sea level. Our first day we hiked up to 11,000 feet to make our camp for the night.

As we neared the basecamp, our guide, probably sensing my nervousness, pulled me aside and said something very important.

He said, “You need to make a decision that you’re going to make this climb before you get to the base camp.

“Because when you get there you’re going to look up at the Grand Teton, and it’ll look like a massive granite spire that sticks straight up higher than you ever imagined, and you’ll feel very intimidated.

“If you have the tiniest doubt in your mind that you can do it as you’re hiking up there today, then once you stand at the base camp tonight and look up, you’ll be convinced that you can’t possibly climb that thing.”

He told me I needed to decide right then and there whether I was going to finish the climb.

I did decide, and we did finish and let me tell you, like everything that’s difficult, the view from the top was well worth the climb.

As a state, our challenges, too, are difficult, and the climb will require great effort, but Tennessee is a remarkable place, with remarkable people.

Now, I think we can all agree that while important things happen in the halls of government it is actually what happens outside these walls that makes Tennessee truly great.

Nearly every Friday since we took office, Maria and I have left this building to meet Tennesseans in their communities to learn more about what makes our state work.

We met a soybean farmer in Lauderdale County who navigates the Mississippi floodwaters to pull in a harvest and carry on our proud agricultural tradition.

We met a third-grade teacher in North Nashville who works over time to ensure their students are reading at grade level and continue to be the fastest improving students in the nation.

We met a small business owner in Jamestown who employs fellow neighbors and keeps the backbone of the Tennessee economy running strong.

And so, as a lifelong Tennessean, when I reflect on our state, I see her people and I am filled with pride.

To our elected leaders in this room and the many Tennesseans watching from their homes, I am proud to report after seeing with my own eyes: the state of our state is hopeful, prosperous, and strong.

God has truly blessed us – our economy is growing, our schools are improving, our natural resources are abundant and beautiful; indeed, we are the envy of many states.

But while our prosperity should be celebrated, it should not be taken for granted, for it was not granted to us.

Our prosperity has been hard won. From the first settlers in the 1790’s to the leaders of past and present, many have contributed to the success we now enjoy.

Our military veterans living, and remembered, deserve the most honored place among those we thank for serving.

We recognize the service of our heroes, and I’d like to talk about one family in particular who has embodied that service and sacrifice.

U.S. Navy Lieutenant Richard C. “Tito” Lannom of Union City was reported missing as of March 1, 1968 during the Vietnam War.

The Obion County native was assigned to Attack Squadron Three Five aboard the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier and was on an A-6A aircraft on a night mission over North Vietnam.

Like many, he did not come back.

Lannom and the pilot were declared missing after a search and rescue mission failed to locate their plane.

He was 27-years old.

In 2017, the Vietnamese excavated a crash site on Tra Ban Island and were ultimately able to identify Lannom in September of last year.

This past weekend, our state had a memorial service for him.

After more than 50 years, Lieutenant Lannom’s final resting place is home, on Tennessee soil, where he belongs.

Please join me in pausing to remember Lt. Lannom and the sacrifice he and so many others have made for our country.

Now, please join me in recognizing the family of Lt. Tito Lannom who has come from across Tennessee to be with us – thank you all for the sacrifices you’ve made and for being here tonight.

Indeed, this is a remarkable state with remarkable people, but past success should not be taken for granted and future success should not be assumed.

We can be glad for the things we’ve done that have brought us to this point, but we must also recognize that new accomplishments will be required from the leaders of today if we are to reach our full potential tomorrow.

Maybe the key question before us is whether we will stand here and enjoy the view from this far up the mountain or push ahead to new heights and new prosperity.

My encouragement to you – to all of us – is that we press higher.

A stronger education system; a better prepared workforce; a system of justice that lives up to its name; and safe neighborhoods across our state.

These and more goals are within our reach if we unite behind a common vision.

In addition to delivering this address, I have the task of proposing to you a state budget.

By God’s favor our state is in a strong financial position, and I believe my proposed budget reflects that.

Managing a budget is one of the most important jobs of government and proposing a fiscally responsible budget is one of the most important jobs of a governor.

And as a conservative businessman, I know a good budget needs to pay for what is needed, take on zero long-term debt, and, perhaps most importantly, save for a rainy day.

As our state continues to grow, we are committed to remaining among the most fiscally sound and best managed states in America.

We live in prosperous days, but it’s precisely during these times when we must build up our storehouses for when times may not be as good.

For that reason, I am particularly proud of this: in my budget, we are making the largest single contribution to our Rainy Day Fund in the state’s history.

When this budget is implemented, our Rainy Day Fund will be $1.1 billion – the largest it has ever been in both real dollars and as a percentage of our overall revenue.

This budget is fiscally conservative and stays within the Copeland Cap, which as you in this room know is in our state’s constitution as a guardrail against out-of-control government spending.

I have said many times that Tennessee can and should lead the nation, and this budget will help us do that.

In particular, there are four things in my budget and legislative agenda that I believe we must do if that goal to lead the nation is to become a reality.

First, Tennessee must deliver a world class education and that education must be aligned with the needs of the job creators of today and tomorrow.

To accomplish that, our students need more guidance, our teachers and principals need more support, and our parents need more choices.

I’ve spoken often about the four out of ten students will not attend college.

For them, we must vastly strengthen our vocational, technical, and agricultural offerings to make sure they are career-ready.

After 35 years in the private sector, I know the job market can change quickly and education must stay in sync with industry.

When companies like Google, Apple, and IBM no longer require a college degree for many high-skilled jobs, we know we need to think differently about how we approach preparing our kids for careers.

Elementary and middle schools need to begin skills training earlier and, from top to bottom, high school needs to look a lot different.

In that spirit, I’m proposing the Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education – the GIVE Act.

The GIVE Act is a $25 million investment to increase the number of young adults earning an industry certification and entering a career within one year of high school graduation.

Another one of our goals is to put Tennessee in the top half of states for technology sector job creation by 2022.

To that end, I recently announced the Future Workforce Initiative, a $4 million effort to increase science, technology, engineering and mathematics – STEM – training in K-12 schools.

The Future Workforce Initiative will add 100 new CTE programs, grow the number of teachers qualified to teach work-based learning and computer science classes, and expand access to AP courses and early postsecondary options for high schoolers.

We are also investing in agricultural education by allocating new recurring funding for both FFA and 4-H youth programs.

These programs and others like them are so important, and it takes the work of dedicated teachers and principals to make sure our students are being well prepared.

One such teacher is Dan Smith from Dyer County and he’s an example of the thousands of dedicated teachers we are fortunate to have in this state.

Dan, a horticulture and agriculture teacher at Dyer County High School and is a former agriculture Teacher of the Year, because of his exemplary work with students.

He has coordinated massive plant sales, integrated master gardeners and landscaped his entire school, and that’s just the beginning.

He’s a pillar in his community. He embodies the term – Agricultural Education.

He is with us here today, and please join me in thanking him for his years of dedicated work to improve the lives of the students of Tennessee.

Many students will go to college, and for that group we want to provide world-class higher education options across our state.

We must continue to invest in our outcomes-focused approach to funding higher education, which is why we’ve set aside $34 million new dollars in this budget to fully fund our higher education institutions.

We will also invest more than $12 million dollars in financial aid to add nearly 7,000 students in need to those we help attend college or obtain a certificate here in Tennessee.

We are also adding resources to help prepare disadvantaged students for college, so they can best take advantage of the opportunities they earn.

We’re making CTE a major priority, but we also want to do other things well.

I fundamentally believe that every child ought to have access to a great, traditional public school.

And so even as we consider expanding options in this state, we must re-double our efforts to make sure that public schools in Tennessee are well-resourced and that Tennessee teachers and principals are the best and most celebrated in the business.

First and foremost, we are fully funding the Basic Education Program and recommending $71 million for a well-deserved 2.5% pay raise for teachers.

Additionally, to support educators and school leaders, we are proposing investments in the professional development of rural principals and expansion of the Rural Principal Network.

In response to the increasing needs of our lowest-performing 5% of schools, we are investing $5 million into improving student and teacher support in our priority schools.

Across our state, we have qualified educators and leaders who are making the sacrifice to serve on local school boards and bring their ideas to the table.

Later this month, I will send a letter to every school board member and superintendent in this state, seeking their input on what is working and what should still be done to make Tennessee the home of the best public schools in America.

To those of you listening today, please know I look forward to personally reading your responses.

In my budget, I propose a three-year pilot program to provide critical student support services to high school students in our 15 distressed counties.

These funds will be matched by private donations and will allow us to provide meaningful support while also measuring the positive effects of this pilot program.

I’ve often said that education is about more than a test score, but test scores can provide valuable data to both teachers and students when used properly.

Later this month, tens of thousands of students will be completing their end of course testing to help ensure that they are receiving the quality education they deserve.

There has been lots of frustration around the administration of the state test in recent years, and I share in that frustration.

My Commissioner of Education is working tirelessly to prepare for this year’s test, but more importantly to finalize the procurement process for selecting a new test vendor for next year and beyond.

But while the execution must get better, we must remain committed to the notion that you can’t improve what you don’t measure.

Going forward, our focus will be on executing a testing regimen that is trustworthy, helpful, and on time.

Whatever else happens in the classroom, the safety of our children and teachers is paramount for my administration and for all of our elected leaders.

For that reason, I am asking the legislature to join with me to fund an additional $30 million investment in our school safety fund and to prioritize the districts with schools who currently have no school resource officers on duty.

Together, we can make sure every school is a safer place for our children.

In my inaugural address, I said that Tennesseans would have to be bold, courageous, and strong in the face of today’s biggest challenges.

One of those challenges is closing the gap between the quality of education offered to students regardless of their zip code.

Tennessee has led the nation with important K-12 education reforms over the last decade, and we have seen the payoff: our student outcomes have been among the fastest improving.

But sustained improvement requires constant innovation, and we must keep looking for the next game-changer.

Parents need more choices with respect to the education of their children and those options should be well-funded and highly accountable.

Students have different needs and abilities, and our education system should mirror that diversity as best as possible.

I believe highly accountable public charter schools are a great model for expanding choice without sacrificing quality, and I’ve seen firsthand how they can dramatically impact the life and trajectory of a student.

In my budget, we are doubling the amount of public charter school facility funding and I will support legislation this year that makes it easier to open good charter schools and easier to close bad ones.

But we should do even more.

Nearly one in three students born into poverty does not finish high school, and a student that doesn’t finish high school is much more likely to stay in poverty.

Low-income students deserve the same opportunities as other kids, and we need a bold plan that will help level the playing field.

We need to change the status quo, increase competition, and not slow down until every student in Tennessee has access to a great education.

We’re not going get big results in our struggling schools by nibbling around the edges. That is why we need Education Savings Accounts in Tennessee, this year.

ESAs will enable low-income students from the most under-performing school districts to attend an independent school of their choice at no cost to their family.

I know there’s concern that programs like this will take money away from public schools, but my ESA plan will invest at least $25 million new dollars in public schools in the first year to fill the gap when a student transfers to another school.

My ESA plan will strengthen public schools and provide choices for parents at the same time.

Creating competition will provide a new incentive for schools to improve and provide new opportunities for thousands of students.

Members of the legislature: now is the time.

Let’s make this the year that every student in Tennessee has a chance at a great education, no matter where they live.

Another important issue in education is curriculum.

We should continue to root out the influence of Common Core in our state, but there’s another issue we should be mindful of as well.

During the past two years of traveling on the campaign trail, an issue I was constantly asked about was civics and character education.

At face value, this may seem like a small issue.

However, in the last year it was reported that young people between the ages of 18 and 29 in this country have a more favorable view of socialism than capitalism.

And last week I read about a recent study that said in 49 of 50 states a majority of residents would fail the U.S. citizenship test.

I can’t help but feel that these two statistics are somehow connected.

President Reagan said that freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.

This demands answering an obvious question; how will our children know of our cherished American values if we do not teach them?

We all desire a more perfect union, but we cannot expect future generations to build upon the incredible progress our country has made if we fail to teach them the history and values that made it possible.

So, let me say this: whatever may be going on in other states or in our nation’s Capital, in this state, our children will be taught civics education, character formation, and unapologetic American exceptionalism.

We are beginning that effort by creating the governor’s civics instructional seal which will recognize schools that excel at teaching civics education.

I said there are four things we must do if we want to lead the nation. First, we must build a better education system. Second, we must build a criminal justice system that is tough, smart, and above all, just.

For decades, this country has been too willing to fight crime on the surface alone – “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.”

Now, in more ways than one, we’re paying the price for that.

Tennessee is currently incarcerating more people for longer than we ever have and the population in our county jails is growing daily.

In fact, at the bottom of this hill begins the most incarcerated zip code in America.

Incarceration can have a generational impact.

Children with an incarcerated parent are at greater risk of being incarcerated themselves. And besides the human cost, there’s the actual cost.

Incarcerating an adult in Tennessee costs $28,000 taxpayer dollars per year. Incarcerating a juvenile for a year can cost many times more than that.

And for all the trouble and cost, what are our criminal justice outcomes? Violent crime is up. Recidivism is high. Jails are struggling to make ends meet.

Let me be clear, the punishment for violent crime must be swift and severe, but we must also get better at helping those who will be released prepare to re-enter society, not re-enter prison.

It’s past time that our state’s elected leaders speak with one voice on this important issue: when it comes to reforming our state’s justice system, the cost of doing nothing isn’t zero.

Crime victims pay the price. Families pay the price. And taxpayers pay the price.

In my proposal to the legislature this year, I recommend a series of smart reforms that will make a big difference.

One area of reform my administration will address is our use of community supervision for low- risk offenders.

Community supervision allows us to provide the corrections oversight necessary to hold someone accountable for their crime without incurring the economic and social cost of incarceration.

It costs about 20 times more to incarcerate someone than to put them under community supervision, and the latter leads to better outcomes.

One of the first things we will do is add funds to the Electronic Monitoring Indigency Fund and add the use of GPS monitoring so that low-risk, non-violent individuals can keep their jobs and provide for their families instead of spending unnecessary time in jail.

Of those who are incarcerated, 95% are not serving a life sentence and will eventually come out and we need to be sure they are prepared for that.

Why? Because every successful reentry means one less crime, and one less victim.

My commitment to having fewer crime victims in this state is reflected in a proposed expansion of education and re-entry counselling opportunities in our prisons.

Educational attainment for incarcerated people can reduce their risk of recidivism by up to 43%. Another important part of successful re-entry is stable employment.

For that reason, we have introduced a bill eliminating the expungement fees for those already eligible under the law to alleviate the cost burden of getting back on their feet.

We must also take bold steps to stop the scourge of drugs illegally trafficked into our state.

I pledged to make Tennessee a state that drug traffickers fear, and I will make sure that our prosecutors and our law enforcement have the tools they need to make that a reality.

We are increasing the penalties on dangerous drugs like fentanyl and making it clear that we will have no leniency on high level drug dealers who target the residents of this state.

And we need more than just strong laws to keep our communities safe; we also need strong law enforcement.

It is no secret that Tennessee lags other states on law enforcement and corrections pay, which impacts our hiring and retention rates.

We are increasing investments in correctional officer pay and training opportunities, and this budget calls for new investments in our law enforcement capacity, improving the in-service training pay supplement, and provide new funding to support the increased demands of our Drug Overdose and Violent Crime Task Forces.

Furthermore, tomorrow morning, I will sign an Executive Order creating a task force to address the growing fiscal and social costs of incarceration.

I appreciate the focus placed on these issues by members of the General Assembly and our Supreme Court in recent years, and it is time to move forward in a comprehensive way.

This task force will be led by Judge Brandon Gibson from my office and will include crime victims and their families, members of the general assembly, state agencies, law enforcement, community and faith based programs, and, yes, even former inmates.

Fundamentally, this task force will recommend legislative and budgetary changes that will help reduce recidivism, make our communities safer and save tax dollars.

I know we can do things differently, because I’ve been involved with groups who have made a difference.

Nonprofits like Men of Valor in Nashville are helping those who enter prison be better prepared to reenter society.

The recidivism rate of Men of Valor’s program graduates is less than one of third of the statewide average.

One person who benefited from this group is a man named Marcus Martin. Marcus was incarcerated for five years.

By his own admission, he was on a quick path back to prison, until he got involved with Men of Valor.

Now, on the outside for 16 years, Marcus is a full-time prison minister, helping and making a huge impact on those still on the inside.

Marcus Martin is here with us tonight – Marcus, please stand and be recognized. Marcus, thanks for what you’re doing.

My fellow Tennesseans, this is a story of redemption, this is a story of Tennesseans helping other Tennesseans.

It’s also a story of fiscal responsibility… and common sense.

We need more of these stories, and when we get them, it won’t be surprising to see that our crime and recidivism rates start going down.

And my administration will do more than talk about how important we think these issues are.

We intend to be national innovators and leaders in showing how people throughout our state – the volunteer state – are willing to partner together to serve one another.

Tonight, I’m proud to announce that we are launching the Volunteer Mentorship Initiative to equip Tennesseans throughout our state to mentor fellow Tennesseans who are currently in prison.

And I’m signing up tonight as the first volunteer.

This initiative will begin by working with Tennessee-based non-profits to pair degree-seeking inmates with mentors on the outside as they seek better opportunities for themselves during their time in prison and their first days back in their communities.

I am pleased to announce that Senator Mike Bell and Representative Michael Curcio have graciously agreed to be the honorary co-chairs of the Volunteer Mentorship Initiative.

And I am even more proud that every member of my senior staff has enthusiastically agreed to join this program as our first batch of new mentors.

Tonight, I’m asking members of our General Assembly and every Tennessean who desires to prayerfully consider volunteering to join this effort.

As our state has shown before, we can change the course of history and the destiny of people when we step up, volunteer, and serve one another.

The challenge ahead of us is great, but the urgency of the situation is greater, and I know we will rise to meet the challenge.

For this issue, the admonition to we public servants is clear: do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.

First, education. Second, justice. And third, every Tennessean should have access to high-quality health care they can afford.

This is an ambitious goal that no state has accomplished, and Tennessee will not accomplish it overnight.

We will work with patients, providers, and payers to establish Tennessee as a world-class health care market for our people using transparency and competition.

To begin this process, I have asked our Finance and Administration Commissioner, Stuart McWhorter, to chair a Healthcare Modernization Task Force that will work closely with private sector stakeholders, policymakers, and communities across the state to develop a list of reforms and critical investments.

In the short-term, there are several things we can do to move Tennessee toward having better health outcomes.

So that more uninsured Tennesseans have access to quality primary and preventative-care services, we are providing additional funding to our health care safety net which supports community and faith-based care centers serving those who do not have health insurance coverage.

We will continue to work with the General Assembly and with Washington to look for waiver opportunities that help us increase insurance coverage without big government strings attached.

We will also be exploring ways to build off the important efforts of the Trump administration to promote price transparency.

Another way to lower health care cost is to combat Medicaid fraud.

Tackling fraud in Medicaid is particularly important as we work to prevent the fraudulent distribution of opioid medications.

To support that effort, we are creating 24 new positions in the state’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit.

Together these efforts will place downward pressure on the cost of coverage.

I am also committed to working with our rural communities to ensure that they have quality healthcare that meets their current and future needs.

Despite the closure of rural hospitals across the state and country, there are many opportunities to transform care in these communities through smart reforms, increased innovation, and a new business model.

Addressing these challenges requires a long-term approach, and we have already taken steps that will deliver real progress this year.

For one, I’m proposing $20 million to boost broadband accessibility which will make technology like telemedicine more accessible and practical.

We are increasing, by as much as $8.6 million, funding for graduate medical education at

Tennessee’s medical schools and critical incentive programs that provide financial support to resident physicians who commit to living and working in our rural communities.

By increasing the supply of care that reflects the needs of rural communities we will be driving down the overall cost of care.

Our focus on economic development and vocational education will also drive better health outcomes as individuals are increasingly able to get higher paying jobs that provide greater stability and access to coverage.

Too often, the conversation around health care focuses exclusively on physical health.

Physical well-being is important, but a national conversation around mental and behavioral health is long overdue.

Nearly 300,000 Tennesseans are facing serious mental health challenges, and far too many are slipping through the cracks.

I made a vow on the campaign trail to strengthen the mental health safety net and I intend to do just that.

In this budget, I am recommending an increase of $11 million in recurring funds to our Behavioral Health Safety Net and our Regional Mental Health Institutes.

These investments will help us serve thousands more of our most vulnerable Tennesseans, most of which do not currently have health insurance.

Tennessee’s suicide rate is 20% higher than the national average.

For that reason, I’m proposing a $1.1 million investment that will expand the state’s partnership with the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network to establish a new regional outreach model and increase the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services’ efforts.

To truly be champions of mental and behavioral health, we must put everything we have behind defeating the opioid crisis in Tennessee once and for all.

We must continue to make progress in preventing addiction, and I will defend the smart limits on prescriptions passed by this legislature.

In this budget, we’ll also work to address the other victims of the opioid crisis — the dependent children of those addicted.

We recommend expanding our investment in the Safe Baby Courts initiative to support vulnerable infants and are including $5 million dollars in new funding to address a rising caseload in our Department of Children’s Services.

Also, as we begin to see an increasing rise of students entering kindergarten facing challenges from prenatal drug exposure, I recommend that we invest an additional $6 million dollars in our Early Intervention Services for schools.

These investments will make Tennessee a healthier state, and when we’re healthier it’s good for Tennesseans and it’s good for the bottom line.

Fourth and finally, when we have accomplished these and many other goals, what remains expected of us is that government be operated with integrity, effectiveness, and as little cost as possible.

Fundamentally, we believe government exists to protect our liberties – not to grant favors, not to build kingdoms, and not to needlessly interfere with the lives of our citizens.

To be sure, the voters did not send us here to create more government.

No, they sent us here to protect their freedoms and protect their hard-earned money. I’ve long believed that Tennessee’s most precious natural resource is our people.

Many of our people can be found at non-profits in this state who are doing, with excellence, jobs that government cannot or should not do.

So, to help protect taxpayer dollars and to engage some of our under-utilized citizens, one announcement I am particularly excited to make is the Governor’s Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives.

This office will leverage the non-profit community and help us unleash the potential of all Tennesseans to get involved to not only make lives better for their fellow citizens but to reduce the responsibilities and ultimately the size of government.

I’d like to close tonight with two short stories.

This last month we have seen record rainfall across our state.

Many areas have flooded, others have dealt with mudslides, water treatment plants have failed, and some of our neighbors have lost loved ones.

Our hearts are with those hurting families, and with all others who are still cleaning up, even tonight.

And we’re grateful to the first responders, state employees, and everyday citizens who were there during the storms and who are supporting that clean up.

A few weeks ago, amid some scary moments, one state employee jumped in to help.

When the flooding started in Dickson County Lt. Travis Plotzer of the Tennessee Highway Patrol was at a flooded roadway on Highway 48.

He went in to chest deep water to help rescue motorists stranded on top of their vehicles. He didn’t hesitate to be the first one to help.

He showed what it really means to be a public servant; he showed what it really means to be a leader.

Please join me in recognizing Lt. Travis Plotzer from Dickson County.

For 35 years prior to becoming governor, I worked in a family-owned company that I led for 20 of those years.

Last month, for the first time in 35 years, I missed our annual, all-employee gathering. I’ll be honest with you – it was bittersweet.

But that same day, Maria and I had the privilege to host at our new home the Governor’s Excellence in Service Award winners from each of Tennessee’s 23 departments.

We went around the room and listened as each one introduced themselves and explained their jobs but what struck me most was not what they did, but the passion with which they did it.

Those dedicated individuals and others like them that I’ve met since remind me that government itself is not a solution to our problems; “we the people” must solve our own problems.

And while our state government is far from perfect, one thing I have learned during my first two months in office is that Tennessee has the most committed, hard-working group of state employees in the country and I am proud to be serving alongside them.

As my daughter and I neared the end of our climb up the Grand Teton, we came to a place famous for its very narrow ledge.

To make it worse, there’s a section in part of the ledge that has a 1,000-foot “exposure”, which is evidently climber-speak for a 1,000-foot fall if you mess a step.

The point is, the only way to get across it was to set your face forward against the mountain and step sideways across the gap – and whatever you do, don’t look down.

As a state, we find ourselves in a very strong position, with a very nice view.

We can choose to sit here and enjoy it, or we can choose to step across the ledge and move to higher, better ground.

But if we decide to go higher and farther, we must resolve to not look back, and not look down. If we lead Tennessee well, Tennessee may well lead the nation.

My prayer is that we will all work together to do just that.

May God bless you, and may God bless the great state of Tennessee. Thank you and good night.

New governor looks to spur country-style commerce

In one of his first official acts after taking the oath of office as Tennessee’s newest chief executive, Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order mandating that state agencies do a better job serving country folks.

The order directs state agencies to take steps toward improving rural economic opportunities, especially in areas deemed “economically distressed.”

“This administration recognizes that Tennessee’s economic growth and prosperity has reached historic levels,” reads Lee’s order, issued Jan. 29. “Despite such growth and prosperity, Tennessee’s rural citizens face challenges unique to their geography that often require a unique response.”

“Educational attainment and labor workforce participation are continuing to lag within our rural communities,” the order states.

Of Tennessee’s 95 counties, 80 are deemed rural by the state. Those around the Upper Cumberland designated “economically distressed” include Jackson, van Buren, Clay and Fentress, as well as Bledsoe, Grundy and nine others in the state.

Lee’s order notes that Tennessee has among states with the highest percentage of distressed counties in the country. The governor observed during a press conference soon after taking office that much of what the state does in the way of corporate recruitment and business project development “automatically happens in urban areas because the vast majority of economic development is occurring in our urban areas.”

“My administration will place a high emphasis on the development and success of our rural areas,” Lee said. “Our first executive order sends a clear message that rural areas will be prioritized across all departments as we work to improve coordination in our efforts.”

Lee’s pledge to focus on rural issues isn’t without precedent. One of the executive order’s mandates is that all 22 state department formally sum up progress they’ve made as a result of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Rural Task Force initiatives.

Their assessments, due by the end of May, must include “a comprehensive description of the department’s initiatives adopted or funded in the last four years to specifically address challenges unique to rural communities.”

Lee’s executive order declares that by June 30 all agencies must provide “recommendations for improving and making more efficient the department’s service of rural Tennesseans.”

Enticing Hinterland Tourism

Lee’s tourism development commissioner, Mark Ezell, says he’s “bullish” on tourism in Tennessee. Tourism’s scope and potential as a driver of economic activity has “community-changing ability” for small towns and rural populations, he said.

Ezell replaces Kevin Triplett, who served in the role under Haslam. He’s no stranger to rural commerce, having worked as a brand development executive with Purity Dairies prior to taking over as the state’s top promoter of Tennessee travel, leisure, entertainment and recreation.

Ezell calls himself “a brand builder.” He says Tennessee is already a “remarkable product.” The goal of his agency now is to get people to visit Tennessee, spend money, then “do that over and over and over again.”

“What is great about tourism is that the size is big and the growth is massive.” Ezell said. “Tourism drives economic impact. Over $20 billion is the new number that we will achieve with growth of over seven percent — beating the national average.”

Tourism bolsters local quality of life throughout the state and has great capacity to do more, he said. “Tourism pays hundreds of millions of dollars for the critical services that help all Tennesseans have a good job, a good school and a safe neighborhood,” he said.

During budget hearings before Gov. Lee in January, Ezell expressed a desire to raise the visibility of seemingly out-of-the-way Tennessee towns and counties endowed with visitor attractions. One of his priorities will be to encourage more travel off the beaten path in order to help share the wealth of tourist dollars flowing into Tennessee.

“Because so many of these counties are rich in scenic beauty or natural resources or adventure tourism opportunities or agritourism, this is a key development piece for us,” he said.

Ezell said his office will try to help rural communities take better advantage of the Adventure Tourism Act “that promotes rafting and kayaking and biking and rock climbing.” The Department of Tourist Development can also lend towns and counties technical and financial assistance in planning and promoting recreation-oriented infrastructure — which is often one of the top ways business and community leaders in economically underperforming regions say the state can help them, he said.

Thirteen of the 15 distressed counties have indicated to the new administration that expanding tourism is their No. 1 priority, said Ezell. For example, Jackson County’s top long term goal is to “leverage the Roaring River and other scenic rivers in the county,” said Ezell.

‘People Relocate Where They Recreate’

Appreciating the benefits of expanding recreation-based tourism is a perspective that makes a lot of sense to Marvin Bullock, president of the Sparta-White County Chamber of Commerce. He says he often encounters transplanted Upper Cumberland entrepreneurs who tell him “our outdoors are why they moved to our area.”

“I am proud that Tennessee recognizes the value of tourism,” he said. “Rural communities with recreational opportunities benefit beyond the dollars spent on tourism and retirees. People relocate where they recreate, and that includes business owners.”

“In the case of Sparta and White County, tourism has substantially contributed to industrial growth and attracting workforce as well,” added Bullock, who points to Jackson Kayak as the best local example of what leveraging nearby recreation potential can achieve in the realm of business and industry development.

Not only is world-champion kayaker Eric Jackson’s company White County’s largest employer, but it regularly helps attract major kayaking events that splash visitors’ dollars around the area.

Just this spring alone, the Upper Cumberland is playing host to two major paddle-sport competitions — the U.S. Freestyle National Team Trials at Rock Island March 16-17, and the inaugural Pan-American Kayak Bass Championship from May 28-31 in Cookeville. The latter is billed as a first-of-its-kind in the world, and will bring more than 100 of the most elite kayak bass anglers from around the globe to Center Hill Lake.

Strengthening Farming, Forestry

Tourism may be a little more flashy and seemingly open-ended in terms of capacity for growth, but farming, ranching and timber-harvesting are still backbone industries in much of rural Tennessee.

That’s especially true around the Upper Cumberland — and in particular the “Nursery Capital of the World,” Warren County.

“Warren County boasts more than 160,000 acres of farmland, with more than 300 nurseries operating in McMinnville and the surrounding vicinity,” according to an economic assessment published last year by the Upper Cumberland Development District. “In 2012, nursery sales totaled $17,691,000, making Warren County the top nursery stock crop producer in the entire country.”

Nevertheless, like in rural areas across the state, farming in general has been diminishing in profitability.

“Agriculture is undoubtedly important in Warren County, however with the industry on a steady decline for the last fifty years, farmers have been struggling to sustain locally owned agribusinesses,” the UCDD report states.

Lee’s new agriculture commissioner, Charlie Hatcher, said his department will be looking to “facilitate or create an environment that is better for farmers or ag businesses” across the state, especially in counties and communities where farming has played a significant role in the local economy

“We are at a time when we know that farm income is down 50 percent,” Hatcher said during Lee’s state budget hearings. He added, “We know that government is not the answer.” Even so, he said “whatever money we have available for cost-shares and grants we would like to use” to make it easier to make a living on the farm.

Gov. Lee is hinting that he might like to see farmers in distressed counties receive “premium scoring” on applications for agriculture enhancement funds and farm-enterprise grant requests with the department.

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture is in the process of forming an internal task force to counsel the agency on rural economic development, said Hatcher. The task force will advise on “all commodity groups throughout the state,” he said.

In addition, the agency will host an online “suggestion box for ag ideas” to promote outreach and communication with farmers, rural communities and ag-focused businesses and entrepreneurs, said Hatcher.

Crews are beginning to embark upon construction of the new lodge and restaurant at Tennessee’s most popular state park.

Regional politicians and state government officials gathered this week at Fall Creek Falls for a ground-breaking ceremony at the lake construction zone at Fall Creek Falls. The planned new 98,000-square-foot will be built to “to reflect the natural setting of the park,” according to a news release from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which oversees state parks.

Breaking ground at Fall Creek Falls State Park are, from left, are Erik Pyle of Bell Construction; Bledsoe County Mayor Gregg Ridley; Lt. Gov. Randy McNally; Rep. Cameron Sexton; TDEC Deputy Commissioner Brock Hill; Deputy Gov. Jim Henry; Ann McGuaran, state architect; Rep. Kelly Keisling; Rep. Ron Travis; General Services Deputy Commissioner John Hull; Ron Lustig of Earl Swensson Associates; and Park Manager Jacob Young of Fall Creek Falls State Park.

The new hotel and lake-facing restaurant will include “three floors of visitor space,” along with “indoor and outdoor gathering areas with larger meeting rooms for conferences.”

The projects designers have said the inn will “provide spacious views of the lake and of the park’s natural forest that will evoke long-lasting memories for visitors.”

Walking trails around the lodge will connect up with other trails that wind off into the remote reaches of the park.

“At Fall Creek Falls, the new inn and restaurant are forecast to generate $278,000 per year in sales and occupancy taxes, a growth of $90,000 per year compared to revenue from the previous facility,” according to the TDEC press release. “Short-term, construction is expected to bring in an estimated $14.7 million in taxable spending to the area, along with more than 100 construction jobs.”

Construction is anticipated finish up in 2020.

The Fall Creek Falls project, which also includes other upgrades to existing park facilities and infrastructure,  is part of more than $175 million in capital projects appropriated for state parks since Republican Gov. Bill Haslam took office, the TDEC release noted. Haslam is finishing up his second and final term as Tennessee’s highest elected official.

“This reinvestment in Tennessee’s most famous state park is indicative of similar reinvestments made from Memphis to Kingsport,” said Brock Hill, deputy commissioner TDEC. “Over $175 million in capital reinvestment is already paying back dividends through increased visitation, customer satisfaction, and revenue growth.”

Text of prepared inauguration speech delivered by Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, Jan. 19, 2019:

In 1796, a man and his young family began their homestead just up the way on the banks of the Cumberland River. That was the same year the great state of Tennessee was formed. 223 years and 50 governors later, we stand here on the banks of the Cumberland, celebrating our history and anticipating our future.

I am honored to stand before you today.

Thank you for that warm introduction Governor McNally. Thanks to you, to Speaker Casada and all the Members of the General Assembly. I look forward to working with you in the months and years ahead.

To the former governors, thank you for being here as well. It’s an honor to have you.

I would also like to thank our Constitutional Officers, the Justices of the Supreme Court, Members of Tennessee’s Congressional Delegation and all of my fellow Tennesseans who have joined us here in War Memorial Auditorium, and those watching at home. Thank you for sharing in this special moment.

I would not be here today without God’s gift to me, my wife Maria.

Throughout the past two years of campaigning, Maria has been constantly at my side. She has been steadfastly committed to me and in this process has become committed to the people of Tennessee. She will make a remarkable First Lady. Maria, thank you.

I would also like to thank my family. My mom Ann Lee is here with us today. She’s been the foundation for four generations of the Lee family, and I’m so honored to have her here with us today.

I would also like to thank my children, Jessica, Jacob, Caleb, Sarah Kate and their families. Your love and support has been strong and yet your sacrifice has been great and I thank you.

I’d like to thank Governor Bill Haslam and his wife Crissy for their tireless service to this state for the past eight years.

Governor, standing here in our state’s capital city, we see reminders everywhere of the successes of your administration. Growth and opportunity seem to be found on every corner. From education to economic development, you have laid a tremendous foundation for us to build upon. We are the envy of many states, and that is due in large part to your exceptional leadership. Thank you for your service and for your friendship.

That man I told you about that settled with his family on the banks of the Cumberland River the year that this state was founded — his name was Charles Braxton Lee.

He was my seventh great grandfather.

We stand here today as the beneficiaries not of great governments of the past–but of the lives of the great men and women who have come before us.

Men and women who forged difficult lives on the frontier, formed small towns, and eventually, larger cities. People who cleared the land and planted crops, started businesses, worked in factories, formed industries.

Creating, as it says on our seal, a state of commerce and agriculture, a state which now stands as one of the most prosperous in the nation.

It did not simply happen, and it was never inevitable.

It happened because of men and women who came before us, who educated the children of Tennessee in one room school houses, and created our education system.

Men and women who cared for our sick on the frontier and then built clinics and hospitals and a healthcare system.

Men and women who protected us and built a system of law and justice, circuit riders who built a community of faith.

It happened because of men and women who struggled to overcome injustices and inequalities in our society … from slavery to suffrage to civil rights.

And it happened because men and women fought and sacrificed, sometimes their lives from the Revolutionary War, until today, defending and protecting the very freedoms that we enjoy today.

And most of all, it happened because of the favor of God Himself. In spite of our inadequacies and our weaknesses, He has been strong on our behalf. He has blessed us indeed. And as governor of Tennessee, I will daily ask Him for his wisdom, guidance, and direction.

We will need that wisdom, for despite the blessings we enjoy, we still face great challenges. Tennesseans, we stand in one of the great states in all of America.

But out greatness has never come from what any one individual did.

Our greatness has always come from the collective lives, service, commitment and sacrifice of those who came before us—because of what we have always done as a people together, in community with each other, in service to our state and to our neighbors.

Last year, Maria and I drove back and forth to every corner of Tennessee in an old RV, and we found out something: no matter whether you live in the mountains of East Tennessee, or the fields of West Tennessee, whether you live in a small town or downtown, people want the same thing: a good job, good school for their kids, and a safe neighborhood.

It’s true that we have good jobs and great prosperity here. We have record low unemployment and taxes. Companies are moving here and small businesses are starting here.

And yet, we also have 15 counties in poverty, all rural, all Tennesseans.

We have some of the most economically distressed zip codes in America — right in the heart of our greatest cities.

When we consider our state, we see how fortunate we are, and yet, we also see how much we have to do.

Not only do Tennesseans want a good job; they want good schools for their kids. We’ve made tremendous progress in education in this state — in part due to great education Governors who have come before me. In fact, Tennessee has the highest rate of improvement in educational outcomes in America. And yet, we’re still in the bottom half of states.

I believe that education is more than a test score — it’s about preparing a child for success in life. A resurgence of vocational, technical and agricultural education, and the inclusion of civics and character education, combined with reforms, will take Tennessee to the top tier of states.

Tennesseans do want good jobs and schools, but they want safe neighborhoods too. And while most neighborhoods are safe, our violent crime rate is on the rise in every major city. We can be tough on crime and smart on crime at the same time. For violent criminals and traffickers, justice should be swift and certain.

But here’s the reality, 95% of the people in prison today are coming out. And today in Tennessee, half of them commit crimes again and return to prison within the first three years. We need to help non-violent criminals re-enter society, and not re-enter prison.

I believe we can do it and create safer neighborhoods for everyone in Tennessee.

These are just a few examples of the challenges that we face, and there are other challenges we can’t ignore.

The opioid epidemic that is ravaging our state.

Too few Tennesseans have access to healthcare that they can afford. And our rural communities are struggling.

These are the challenges of our day, and history will judge us based on how we meet them.

As honored as I am to be your next governor, I know that no governor can solve all the problems we face—in fact, no government can.

Government is not the answer to our greatest challenges.

Government’s role is to protect our rights and our liberty and our freedom.

I believe in a limited government, that provides unlimited opportunity for we the people to address the greatest challenges of our day.

The truth is that most of the things that have created the greatness of Tennessee don’t have very much to do with government at all.

Our strength has always come from our people, people like those First Tennesseans, who came here with hope, who worked together to create this great state.

We are famous for our three grand divisions of East, Middle and West Tennessee, represented by the three stars on our flag. It is important however to remember that the blue circle around the three stars on our flag represents the unity of our state. I believe that Tennesseans have much more that unites us than divides us.

I believe that one way that we unite is by following the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. In fact, I believe it is the key to American greatness. Our greatness has never come from government compulsion or power. Our greatness has always come from our love for each other, our commitment to our fellow citizens, our neighbors.

If we remember that commandment and walk in that spirit, our greatest days will always lie before us.

So much has changed in the last 223 years, but some things haven’t changed at all.

Once again, here we are: Tennesseans, standing on the banks of the Cumberland, with great challenges and great opportunities before us — as in need of the Wisdom and favor of God as much as ever — and with a deep commitment to each other.

These last few months especially, I’ve thought a lot about Braxton Lee and those first Tennesseans.

I wonder what they told each other and how they dealt with their struggles. I think a lot about who they were.

They were strong and courageous. They were faithful. They were committed. They were certain.

They were Tennesseans.

I’ve also thought a lot about our descendants, seven generations from now. What will they say of us?

Were we strong and courageous, faithful, committed, certain? Did we come together to meet the challenges we faced, with courage, optimism and belief in each other?

If we meet the challenges of this moment, they too will say of us– “They were Tennesseans.”

Thank you for this great honor, may God bless each of you and may God Bless the great state of Tennessee.

The 111th Tennessee General Assembly commenced in Nashville on Tuesday, with both chambers of the legislative branch selecting members of the Republican caucus to preside over the respective lawmaking bodies.

The House and Senate are again this session dominated by Republicans. For the past six years the GOP has enjoyed supermajority control of both statehouse chambers, as will be the case now for at least two more years.

For that reason, when the Republican House and Senate caucus members met late last year to choose their nominees for the respective speaker posts, it was a foregone conclusion that their picks would go on to ultimately win approval before the full legislative chambers.

In the Senate on Tuesday afternoon, Randy McNally of Oak Ridge was approved to serve a second term as the chamber’s gavel-bearer. McNally has served 32 years in the state Senate, and before that eight years in the House.

All 26 Republican senators present voted for McNally. All five of the chamber’s Democrats abstained, although they did not nominate a speaker candidate of their own.

As speaker of the Senate, McNally is also officially designated as Tennessee’s lieutenant governor.

Floor sessions in the House of Representatives for the next two years will be supervised by Williamson County Republican Glen Casada.

A 10-term House lawmaker and longtime fixture in lower-chamber GOP caucus leadership circles, Casada is replacing Beth Harwell at the speaker’s podium.

Harwell, a Nashville Republican who holds the distinction of serving as Tennessee’s first female legislative speaker, ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018 and didn’t seek re-election to the statehouse.

Casada beat out the Democrats’ speaker nominee, Karen Camper of Memphis, by a vote of 75-22. Three members of the minority caucus — Johnny Shaw of Bolivar, John DeBerry of Memphis and John Mark Windle of Livingston — crossed party lines and voted for Casada. Another Democrat, Darren Jernigan of Old Hickory, abstained.

During remarks after taking the speaker’s oath of office, Casada noted that 28 of this session’s House lawmakers are new faces in the General Assembly. “Now that our elections are over and behind us, we must come together and tackle the greater task, which is governing,” he said.

Casada promised that the House will under his leadership assume a more active role in state government budget-writing and spending oversight. He said he wants to see the General Assembly more assertively exercise its “voice intended by the Tennessee Constitution.”

Lawmakers, lobbyists and Capitol-watchers can also expect “a committee process that is more balanced and ensures important pieces of legislation have a fair opportunity to make it to the House floor, instead of being held up by technicalities,” Casada said.

He pledged that “partnership, not partisanship” will mark his leadership style.

“We will…work to build a bond of bipartisanship across this chamber,” Casada said.

A special state legislative committee tasked with assessing government transparency in Tennessee appears to have concluded that tinkering with state’s public records statutes may be in order.

Just how comprehensive a rewrite, and where exactly to start, remain unclear, though.

Last week, House and Senate lawmakers serving on the Open Records Ad Hoc Committee concluded their assignment of investigating and recommending changes to transparency rules that stipulate what documents and information is and is not available for public inspection.

But committee chairman Jason Zachary, a Republican state representative from Knoxville, said the process of identifying and deciding how to remedy legitimate transparency trouble-spots has been tougher than expected.

“We didn’t realize what an extensive and exhaustive lift this would be,” he said.

As a matter of law in Tennessee, all public records are presumed open for public inspection unless otherwise indicated by the Legislature.

Over the years, however, lawmakers have become adept at stipulating that some information or records created or covered under statutes and program the General Assembly enacts are in fact exempt from that assumption of transparency.

“Essentially, if there is a law saying that the record is not open to the public, then it cannot be released,” Jason Mumpower, chief of staff to the state comptroller, told members of the committee back in August.

“The amount of exceptions have grown over time,” added Mumpower.

In 1955, when the Act was passed, there were just two exceptions to it written into law. By 1988 there were 39. Now there are 563 exceptions, Mumpower said.

The comptroller’s office tabulated all the existing state-law exceptions to the Open Records Act for the committee to scrutinize.

Trying to protect legitimate concerns of privacy and confidentiality on the one hand, and ensuring the public’s right to keep a close watch on the activities of government on the other, can make for a tricky balancing act, said Mumpower.

“Government officials certainly have an obligation to quickly provide access to public records, but they also have a duty to ensure that they do not disclose confidential information,” he said, adding that lawsuits have arisen in Tennessee as a result of one party thinking a record was open under the wording of a law, and another party believing it confidential under the very same wording.

Zachary anticipates a bureaucratically laborious task that will take time and require more staff resources. “Some states have taken up to ten years to walk through those exemptions,” he said. Nevertheless, the committee is expected to advise the full Legislature that the time has come to develop a process for “sunsetting” certain existing exceptions deemed unnecessary or overly broad.

An easier mission will be making sure that more sunlight is cast on the process on the front end, Zachary predicted.

Requiring that expressly designated committees in both House and Senate chambers specifically consider bills with transparency law exemptions provisions tacked on — and explicitly determine whether those provisions are indeed warranted — would help address that issue, he said.

Bill Lee, who will take the reins as the state’s governor from Bill Haslam in January, has indicated he too perceives a need for more openness in Tennessee government.

Lee has promised a “complete overhaul of our open records and open meetings acts to make government more transparent.”

“Tennessee taxpayers deserve a transparent and open government,” Lee’s transition website declares. He’s also committed to establishing “a new program to invite and receive public comments on new laws before signing.”

Furthermore, Lee says he’ll make it a priority “to get out of the bubble of Nashville to deliver State of the State addresses in all three Grand Divisions throughout his tenure.”

Incoming governors visit White House

Tennessee’s gubernatorial election winner, Republican Bill Lee, was among a group of more than a dozen new voter-endorsed state-level chief executives from around the country to meet with President Donald Trump this week.

Lee and 21 other incoming governors were invited the the White House for the Dec. 13 gathering — although eight Democrats were no-shows, according to news reports.

During the meeting, Lee sat between Democratic Michigan Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer and Vice President Mike Pence, who served as GOP governor of Indiana from 2013 to 2017.

When his time came to introduce himself to the president, Lee said he was “honored” to be in the room with Trump and the vice president, and that he looks forward to “serving the people of Tennessee and partnering with you.”

Trump responded, “Fantastic race — you did a great job.”

Lee, a wealthy Tennessee businessman, earned Trump’s endorsement after he bested a crowded field of GOP candidates for governor in the August 2 primary.

“Congratulations to Bill Lee of Tennessee on his big primary win for Governor last night,” Trump tweeted on Aug. 3. “He ran a great campaign and now will finish off the job in November. Bill has my total and enthusiastic Endorsement!”

Lee went on in the general election to defeat the Democrat’s candidate, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, by 20 points and more than 470,000 votes, 59 percent to 39 percent.

A national organization that tracks efforts on higher education campuses to suppress the exercise of free speech has declared that Tennessee is, on whole, basically average when it comes to universities respecting First Amendment liberties.

Given the disquieting level of intolerance for controversial opinions and divergent points of view at American colleges these days, that isn’t all that great.

“The vast majority of students at America’s top colleges and universities surrender their free speech rights the moment they step onto campus,” according to a press release this week from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE. “In Tennessee, 88 percent of institutions restrict some amount of free speech.”

FIRE recently published a nationwide study titled, “Spotlight on Speech Codes 2019: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses.”

In the report, the Philadelphia-based group surveyed written policies pertaining to protections and restrictions on free speech at both public and private universities. The FIRE researchers concluded that nearly 90 percent of the schools they examined “maintain policies that restrict — or too easily could restrict — student and faculty expression.”

“Colleges should be a place for open debate and intellectual inquiry, but today, almost all colleges silence expression through policies that are often illiberal and, at public institutions, unconstitutional,” said Laura Beltz, FIRE’s lead author of the study.

FIRE uses a three-tiered system of rating individual schools that applies “red light,” “yellow light” or “green light” designations. A “red light” means an institution maintains “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” A “yellow” rating means the school enforces policies that “by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression.” A “green light” signifies that “a college or university’s policies do not seriously imperil speech.”

“A green light does not indicate that a school actively supports free expression,” the report notes. “It simply means that FIRE is not currently aware of any serious threats to students’ free speech rights in the policies on that campus.”

Both Middle Tennessee State University and Tennessee Tech University received yellow ratings.

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville earned a green light, making it “one of just two SEC East universities to earn FIRE’s highest rating for speech.”

Of the eight Tennessee schools FIRE rated, only Tennessee State University was hit with a red light grade.

All in all, the FIRE report’s authors say there is actually some room for optimism in the report — despite the continuing reality that “far too many colleges across the country fail to live up to their free speech obligations in policy and in practice.”

For the eleventh year in a row, the share of schools earning a red light has gone down. Last year it was above 32 percent, this year it is 28.5.

“In further good news, more and more colleges and universities continue to adopt policy statements in support of free speech modeled after the one adopted by the University of Chicago in January 2015,” the report’s executive summary observes. “As of this writing, 50 schools or faculty bodies have endorsed a version of the free speech policy statement known as the ‘Chicago Statement,’ with 14 adoptions in 2018 alone.”

During Tennessee’s 2017 state legislative session, lawmakers passed a measure called the “Campus Free Speech Protection Act.” That legislation directed public institutions across the Volunteer State to establish policies that “embrace a commitment to the freedom of speech and expression for all students and faculty.”

In a press release issued after Republican Gov. Bill Haslam signed the act into law, FIRE described it as containing “some of the country’s strongest protections for student and faculty speech on public college campuses.”


SILVER POINT, Tenn. (Nov. 30, 2018) – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District and contractor Thalle Construction Company are moving towards the conclusion of the Center Hill Dam Safety Rehabilitation Project.

The start of December marks the completion of foundation preparation for a “roller-compacted concrete” reinforcing berm downstream of Center Hill’s auxiliary dam, work that began in January 2018. A minimum of two-feet of conventional concrete, referred to as ‘mud matting,’ was placed on the 125-foot wide by 800-foot long cleaned bedrock base to allow for a good working surface to begin placement of the RCC.

The Corps blasted and excavated about 65,000 cubic yards of rock to create a solid, notched base for the large 100-foot high by 1000-foot long concrete RCC berm. The exposed rock base was then geo-mapped.

“Geo-mapping gives the agency a detailed reference picture of the bedrock, which will be the natural base of the berm foundation,” said Tommy Hollowell, Nashville District geologist. “This will allow us to plan placement of the expansion and contraction joints in the concrete berm and to monitor specific rock formations if any future issues arise.”

About two-foot diameter rocks and smaller, recycled from stabilization excavation at Center Hill Dam’s left rim, have been placed between the auxiliary dam and RCC berm. The rock fill will place pressure on the downstream auxiliary dam embankment and reduce the risk of internal erosion.

Grouting 25 feet into the mud matting and bed rock is also nearing 70 percent complete.

Linda Adcock, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District project manager, explained that the grout fills any voids that may exist between the two layers, and ‘locks’ the layers together ensuring a solid foundation for the placement of concrete to suport the berm. Concrete placement is expected to begin in January.

Thalle Construction Company has the concrete batch plant equipment in place to produce the special type of concrete, RCC, which resembles more of a solid than a liquid. As this concrete is placed on the berm site, it will be spread by a blade and compacted with a vibrating roller into one-foot layers.

“Roller compacted concrete resembles a mixture of dirt and rock more than typical, conventional concrete, due to its low moisture content,” Adcock said. “The advantage of this type of concrete is place using traditional road paving equipment which is generally much more efficient than placing typical conventional concrete.”

Alan Malcomb, civil engineer and contracting officer for the Roller Compacted Concrete phase, said the winter weather may pose a challenge the Corps of Engineers and Thalle Construction because when temperatures drop below 35 degrees Fahrenheit and precipitation exceeds a tenth of an inch per hour, concrete placement must be halted.

As work approaches the last chapter for the concrete berm, site restoration on the southwest side of Center Hill Dam is underway. The area previously known as Eisenhower Park or Center Hill Park has served as a work platform for the Dam Safety Rehabilitation Project during the past 10 years. Bluegrass Construction Corporation is grading the area and will build picnic sites, three shelters, a comfort station, and a boat ramp allowing access to Center Hill Lake. The RCC Berm and the restored boat ramp and lake access are planned to be finished by the end of 2019. The RCC berm completion is necessary before Center Hill Lake can return to normal operating lake levels.

(The public can obtain news, updates and information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District on the district’s website at, on Facebook at, and on Twitter at The public can also follow Center Hill Lake on Facebook at

Press Release from the Transition Team of Tennessee Governor-Elect Bill Lee, November 27, 2018

Transition names three commissioners and several key personnel to the governor’s staff

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor-elect Bill Lee announced his first cabinet appointments as well as several key appointments to his forthcoming gubernatorial staff.

“We have received a tremendous amount of interest from Tennesseans across the state who are interested in serving our administration,” said Lee. “I am proud to announce these first members of my cabinet and staff. They are highly qualified to lead in their respective areas and will be an important part in helping our state continue to grow.”

The Governor-elect named the following appointments to his cabinet today:

  • Danielle Barnes – Department of Human Services
  • Stuart McWhorter – Department of Finance and Administration
  • Marie Williams – Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services

Danielle Barnes currently serves as the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Human Services, and she will continue in that role. Prior to joining DHS, she served as Deputy Commissioner & General Counsel for the Tennessee Department of Human Resources. In her capacity, she had oversight over all legal issues within the Department, offering counsel and advice to her agency, other state agencies and individuals on employment law matters. Commissioner Barnes grew up in the Knoxville area. She received her undergraduate degree from Spelman College and her law degree from the University of Tennessee College of Law.

Stuart McWhorter currently chairs inauguration planning efforts. He served as Finance Chairman for Governor-elect Lee’s gubernatorial campaign. McWhorter serves as Chairman and President of Clayton Associates, founded in 1996, an investment management company primarily focused on the early stage investment cycle in the healthcare and technology industries.

Crockett County native Marie Williams currently serves as Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (TDMHSAS), and she will continue in that role. She leads the Department and their over 1,800 employees in assisting individuals in securing treatment and recovery services for serious mental illness, serious emotional disturbances, and substance abuse disorders. Prior to assuming the Commissioner role, she served as Deputy Commissioner and as the Assistant Commissioner of Mental Health Services where she worked collaboratively to expand consumer-based recovery services.

Governor-elect Lee also announced the following senior staff roles in the governor’s office:

  • Blake Harris – Chief of Staff
  • Butch Eley – Chief Operating Officer
  • Lang Wiseman – Deputy to the Governor & Chief Counsel
  • Chris Walker – Communications Director
  • Tony Niknejad – Policy Director
  • Laine Arnold – Press Secretary

Blake Harris currently serves as the Executive Director for Governor-elect Lee’s transition leadership team. He is an attorney and served as General Consultant for Bill Lee’s successful gubernatorial campaign. Responsible for overall campaign strategy for the campaign, he built the campaign team that helped propel Bill to victory this year.

Butch Eley currently serves as the Chairman for Governor-elect Lee’s transition leadership team. He most recently served as Chief Growth Officer of DBI Services, one of the nation’s leading providers of performance-driven operations and maintenance and asset management services. Prior to that, he founded Infrastructure Corporation of America in 1998 to provide comprehensive asset management solutions for infrastructure assets. Butch served on Bill Lee’s Business Advisory Coalition during his campaign and is a former member of the Republican Governor’s Association Executive Roundtable.

Lang Wiseman served as Campaign Counsel to Bill Lee’s gubernatorial campaign. He founded Wiseman Bray PLLC in Memphis and specializes in business and commercial litigation. Lang currently serves on the University of Tennessee’s Board of Trustees and also currently serves on Gov. Haslam’s Council for Judicial Appointments.

Chris Walker served as Communications Advisor to Bill Lee’s gubernatorial campaign. Most recently, he worked in communications advisory roles with the American Enterprise Institute and The Heritage Foundation. He has served in various capacities for former U.S. Senators Bill Frist and Fred Thompson and served as Press Secretary for U.S. Senator Richard Burr (NC). He also served in the George W. Bush administration as a Public Affairs officer at the Department of the Treasury and as a Defense Fellow at the Department of Defense.

Tony Niknejad served as the Policy Director for Bill Lee’s gubernatorial campaign. Prior to that, he served as Tennessee State Director for the American Federation for Children. He also worked with the Republican Party of Kentucky in their historic retaking of the state House in 2016, as well as two Republican campaigns for congressional candidates in Georgia and Tennessee. He has also served as a policy staffer at the Tennessee State Senate and is the former chairman of the Davidson County Young Republicans.

Laine Arnold currently serves as the Press Secretary for the Transition. Previously, Arnold served in the same role for Governor-elect Lee’s General Election campaign. She also served as Press Secretary for the Randy Boyd for Governor campaign in 2017 and 2018.

On November 7, the transition unveiled a new website – The site includes detailed information about the Governor-elect’s policy priorities, a section where Tennesseans can submit their resumes to potentially join his team, and most importantly, a section where Tennesseans can share their ideas with the Governor-elect and his team.

Since launching the site, the Lee Transition Team has received information from over 900 applicants who are interested in serving in the administration and nearly 2,000 ideas for bettering state government.