2023 Tennessee State of the State Recap

Governor Lee giving his 2023 State of the State Address


On February 6th, Governor Bill Lee took to the dais at the Tennessee State Capitol to give the first State of the State address of his second term. Expanding upon the theme of his inauguration ceremony, Governor Lee repeatedly framed the state of Tennessee as “Leading the Nation”. The Governor noted the state’s fast-growing population and the arrivals of Ford Motor Company and In-And-Out burger, citing these as evidence that recent investments in public education, workforce development and safe schools have placed Tennessee at the forefront of the nation.

While there’s little doubt that many people are thriving in the state of Tennessee, it is fair to ask whether those opportunities for success are equally available to all Tennesseans. Our 2022 Tennessee Disability Scorecard found multiple areas of public policy in which the state leaves Tennesseans with disabilities behind. Thus, Governor Lee’s speech today provided us a glimpse into the proposed direction of the state, and an opportunity to see whether or not those proposals can improve Tennessee for those with disabilities.  

With the state sporting another large budget surplus, the Governor had plenty of room to address his priorities. Last year, Governor Lee’s big proposal was to overhaul the state’s public funding mechanism and inject an additional $1 billion per year into public schools. This year, the Governor proposed to add an additional $350 million per year into the TISA formula, 

His budget request also earmarked $125 million of those funds to increase teacher pay. At the end of his 4-year term, Governor Lee said, the minimum salary for a public-school teacher would be $50,000. This year, that would give Tennessee the 3rd highest minimum teacher salary in the country, up from 31st. Experienced, high-quality teachers can make an enormous difference in schools, particularly for kids with disabilities. 

Governor Lee also proposed to fund the placement of a Homeland Security Officer in each county to facilitate the use of the SafeTN app. The app allows individuals to anonymously report suspicious behavior, with an emphasis on school safety. School safety is incredibly important, but there are better ways to use these funds. These funds could be used to improve behavior supports in schools, like hiring more applied behavior analysts and school psychologists. These funds could be used to implement evidence-based school climate programs, like trauma-informed instruction and PBIS. They could be used to fully staff schools to ensure that all kids have the supports they need to fully implement IEP’s, BIP’s and staff classrooms. 

The Governor went on to praise the state’s recent Medicaid “block grant” waiver, claiming that shared savings from the first year of implementation were $300 million. This is a misleading claim. First, the state was asked to make substantial changes to their waiver application, including eliminating the use of a commercial-style formulary, to make explicit that services won’t be cut and, importantly, return to a budget neutrality model, rather than the block grant model. Second, any “savings” must then have been the result of lower spending on unavailable services, as well as a recent influx of federal funding. Finally, the “block grant” would not be a policy to tout; it undermines the purpose of Medicaid as a safety net health care program by emphasizing savings over access to high-quality care. What’s more, Tennessee left $2.1 billion on the table in 2022 by refusing to expand Medicaid, which is seven times higher than last year’s “shared savings”.

One of Governor Lee’s big announcements during the speech was his new infrastructure plan, called the Transportation Modernization Act. Our 2022 Scorecard gave Tennessee a C- in the area of transportation, so there is plenty of room to grow. While repairing, improving and expanding roadways will likely benefit all Tennesseans, I’m not seeing much investment in improving transit services or accessible transportation options that would specifically benefit individuals with disabilities. 

Another big and welcome announcement was Governor Lee’s proposed paid parental leave legislation. His bill would provide 12 weeks of paid leave for birth, adoption or foster care for state employees. This is a good place to start; the ability to maintain employment and financial stability while providing care for your kids is vital to thriving families. Ideally, leave would include family and medical leave so that family members have the option to care for sick or recovering loved ones as well. AARP ranked Tennessee 49th in family caregiver support, so this is a step in the right direction, but only represents the barest of minimum commitments to supporting caregivers. 

Governor Lee also announced that he plans to make Tennessee’s State Park system the “most accessible” park system in the nation, specifically citing physical accessibility as one of his primary goals. This is a very welcome announcement and I look forward to seeing the new parks and upgrades to existing facilities. 

The Governor’s administration also released its proposed budget. Some notable inclusions are:

  • DIDD – $15 million for moving children with disabilities in hospitals to “lesser levels of institutional care”
  • DIDD – $22 million for long-term placement of children with disabilities for whom the state cannot find traditional foster care placements
  • DIDD - $5 million in non-recurring funds to build out a provider network for kids currently in DCS custody who will require specialized institutional or residential care in the future
  • DIDD - $12,436,000 million in recurring funds for provider reimbursement to increase hourly wages for direct support professionals to $14.44 per hour
  • DIDD - $2,277,900 to provide a pool of recurring funding for nursing and independent service coordinator provider rate increases in HCBS waiver services in DIDD
  • TennCare – roughly $30 million to expand or make permanent maternal health programs
  • TennCare - $6,337,000 in recurring funds for direct support professional reimbursement
  • DCS/TennCare - $18.5 million in reimbursement for providers working with kids in DCS custody
  • TCAD - $300,000 in recurring funds for direct support professional reimbursement

Governor Lee’s theme, “Tennessee Leading the Nation”, should be considered an aspirational idea. We may debate about how to best invest in order to make Tennessee the greatest state in the country, but we all aspire for our state to be just that. The budget and policies proposed today lay out a vision for achieving that lofty goal. It’s up to us as constituents and advocates to determine whether these planned investments represent the best that Tennessee can be and for whom. We believe that Tennessee works best for everybody when it works for Tennesseans with disabilities. Thus, it is vital that we continue to advocate for the best interests of Tennesseans with disabilities, from investments in transportation to education to public safety: when it works for us, it works for all. 

We will continue to analyze the Governor’s budget proposal and monitor the progress of the policies proposed in the State of the State address. The Governor’s proposal is also just part of the budgeting process. Ultimately, the final state budget is proposed and passed by the General Assembly, and will change as the session continues and costs become more clear. 

  • You can see the video of the Governor’s State of the State address at this link
  • You can see the full text of the Governor’s State of the State address at this link
  • You can see the Governor’s full budget proposal document at this link