Gov. Bill Lee wants the state to spend about $200 million in what he hopes would bring broadband to every community across the state.
The plan was announced Monday during the annual State of the State address in which Lee unveiled his $41.8 billion spending plan.
It includes raises for state employees, a plan to set up broadband in rural communities, money for the maintenance of state buildings and the expansion of postpartum coverage through TennCare.
“We have taken a fiscally conservative approach throughout this past year, maintaining strong reserves and budgeting for conservative growth rates,” Lee said. “Indeed, our budget is strong, and the differences are stark when you compare our state’s conservative budget to states with very different approaches.”
But Democrats are already questioning Lee’s plan. Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said the budget doesn’t seem to actually tackle relevant problems Tennesseans are facing.
“You can judge how much a priority something is by whether or not we are spending as much on it as we did on those sock masks,” Yarbro said, referencing the state decision to spend $8.2 million on face masks of questionable quality. “And right now, when it comes to fixing the unemployment system, the childcare system, mental health, substance abuse treatment and numerous other things — we are not even getting close.”
Investment in rural communities
Rural Tennessee has been one of the targets of Lee’s proposals in the past, and this budget includes $200 million for broadband in those communities.
Lee hopes that the state’s spending will be matched with private investments from local utility companies.
“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,” Lee said.
It’s unclear whether the proposal has specifics on how to ensure people have access to internet, once the infrastructure is in place.
Yarbro, the Nashville Democrat, applauded the proposal but said he worries it will not address all of the issues regarding connectivity in the rural community.
“I think the investment in broadband is overdue, but appreciated,” Yarbro told reporters. “I still think the jury is out on whether it’s going to actually lead to more internet adoptions in people’s home, and I think that’s what we got to drive and just to make sure that we are not putting up poles and not getting internet into houses.”
Lee extends postpartum coverage
Lee also addressed his plans to improve health care for Tennesseans, applauding the efforts of lawmakers in receiving a Medicaid block grant earlier this year.
This federal lump sum will be used to provide health care for low-income residents.
“Let me be clear: If partisan attacks that call for this block grant to be rescinded prevail, the state will not get these shared savings dollars that we plan to use to improve healthcare for vulnerable Tennesseans,” Lee said.
The grant was not included in the Tennessee Department of Health’s budget for this year. It is not likely to be factored into the budget until the upcoming fiscal year.
However, the proposed budget does include expansions to TennCare, like the extension of postpartum coverage for women. Under the plan, new moms would be able to receive postpartum care for a year — that’s up from the current 60 days of coverage.
Lee first proposed this expansion of postpartum care in 2020. But, the coverage was ultimately cut from the budget in response to COVID-19.
If approved by the legislature, TennCare estimates the three-year pilot program could potentially impact 4,000 to 6,500 new mothers.
Lee to re-introduce gun bill
The governor is also going back to one of his 2020 promises of making Tennessee a state where people can carry guns without a permit. The original measure was filed in 2020 but Lee nixed it once the pandemic started impacting the state.
Lee said he is doing it because Tennesseans “want a strong commitment to the Second Amendment and the right to protect themselves.”
The measure, if approved by the legislature, will cost the state about $17.8 million in incarceration costs for those who break the law. The administration could not explain how they landed on that number or how many people they expect to go to jail because of this measure.
Additionally, the Lee administration is proposing $2.3 million for the purchase of body cameras for state troopers. A spokeswoman for the Department of Finance and Administration said the money would get the state 600 cameras — right now only 84 state troopers use body cams.