NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP/WKRN) — After hinting for weeks about his top priorities for Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee will finally unveil his first ever budget proposal and legislative agenda to state lawmakers on Monday.
But his policies are not the only drama looming at the statehouse. The upcoming State of the State address comes after an eventful first 45 days for the political newcomer who had largely managed to sail to victory during the campaign without facing many missteps.
Last week, protesters at the GOP-dominated Statehouse took center stage to question the continued presence of a bust of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, an early Ku Klux Klan leader. Two people were arrested in a confrontation that came just weeks after Lee acknowledged with regret that he had worn a Confederate soldier uniform at “Old South” parties in college.
While reaction to Lee’s admission has been muted in Nashville’s Capitol, the episode caught some off-guard after Lee bypassed any big controversies in the campaign. He seemed to be settling in comfortably with other GOP leaders during his first few weeks in office when the photo emerged in the aftermath of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s admission that he once wore blackface.
The Confederate uniform photo, which surfaced last month in a 1980 Auburn University yearbook, showed Lee in the outfit at a Kappa Alpha party. The event has since been discontinued.
“While I never intentionally acted in an insensitive way, with 40 years of hindsight, I have come to realize that was insensitive and have come to regret that,” Lee said.
Separately, protesters have renewed the push to remove the Forrest bust. The statue has resided between the House and Senate in the Capitol lobby since the late 1970s.
Forrest was famous for his exploits as a Confederate cavalry general who had amassed a fortune as a plantation owner and slave trader in Memphis before the Civil War.
Lee has said he would like to see more context around the statue, but there have been no efforts to add any this session.
The pro-removal demonstrations came to a head last week, however, when two African-American protesters were arrested after one person threw a cup of coffee at House Speaker Glen Casada and another tried to duck under a roped off section near the bust.
GOP leadership was quick to condemn the protesters. And while Democrats also came out against the protesters throwing items at lawmakers, they countered that Republicans have yet to speak out against a recent decision to remove six women from a legislative committee. The women had shown up in opposition to appointment of a lawmaker who has been accused of sexual misconduct as the committee’s chairman.
House leaders have remained steadfast in support of Rep. David Byrd, who faces accusations from three women who say he acted inappropriately with them while they were students and he was their high school basketball coach three decades ago. Byrd has said conduct that long ago is difficult, at best, to recall. And he was later recorded apologizing to one of accusers though he never said why he did so.
Lee is expected to focus on criminal justice reform and education during his speech on Monday evening. Some items have already been announced, including a proposed $40 million initiative to fund more school resource officers and a proposal to create a statewide vocational and technical training program.
A possible voucher-like bill has been speculated, but no details have been revealed. However, Senate leaders told reporters last week they expected Lee to discuss an education saving account proposal, which voucher proponents have often supported.
Excerpts from the address released to News 2:
State of the State: “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.”
“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.”
Budget: “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.”
Education: “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.”
Public Safety: “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%.”
Mental Health: “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.”