In a most unusual year, Governor Lee ended the night’s 2021 State of the State address by delivering a hopeful message to legislators. “We see things more clearly…” he said, “(we) see the needs of our neighbors around us, every single one of them and commit to serving them”. The Governor’s address at War Memorial Auditorium laid out Lee’s budget and policy priorities for 2021, including investments in education, mental health services, foster care and adoption and economic recovery.
Governor Lee began his address praising the state’s work on its COVID-19 testing strategy, noting that Tennessee had one of the lowest disease fatality rates in long-term care facilities in the country. The state’s commitment to prioritizing the protection of some of our most vulnerable residents, both in testing and vaccine distribution, is certainly praiseworthy. We are particularly grateful for the early access to vaccines for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are over 18 years old and cannot live independently. As the state continues its vaccine rollout, Governor Lee’s administration should continue to emphasize vaccinating Tennesseans with disabilities, home healthcare workers and direct service providers, as well as people supporting medically vulnerable family members.
The Governor also cited the state’s dramatically improved unemployment rate. From a pandemic-influenced high of 15.5%, the unemployment rate has now dropped to 6.4%, or better than it was before the pandemic. While low unemployment rates are a good sign for the economy as a whole, it is important that this recovery is equally extended to workers with disabilities. Traditionally underrepresented in the workforce, the pandemic has further exacerbated the employment gap between people with and without disabilities. Governor Lee should work to ensure that Tennesseans with disabilities have the same access to our state’s quick economic recovery as everybody else.
Governor Lee’s Department of Finance and Administration has reported an unforeseen budget surplus of over $740 million. With this surplus, Governor Lee has chosen to invest $900 million in capital maintenance and infrastructure. This includes $800,000 for ADA compliance. We appreciate that the Governor plans to keep accessibility at the forefront of his infrastructure policy.
A major highlight of the address was Governor Lee’s proposed investment of $120 million for increased teacher compensation, a long-time goal of the Governor’s. Given the disproportionate turnover of special education teachers, particularly in rural districts and schools serving children in poverty, increased compensation that reduces turnover is well worth it and long overdue. The Governor’s budget also committed to fully funding the Basic Education Plan (BEP), the formula that dictates school funding. While we agree that the investment is necessary, the Lee administration must work to overhaul the inequitable BEP in order to better support students with disabilities and improve their academic outcomes.
Governor Lee’s budget proposed substantial and vital investments in the state’s healthcare system. Governor Lee offered $6.6 million to extend postpartum care through a temporary TennCare pilot program from 60 days to one year. He also plans to invest $2 million in the state’s health care safety net. One important investment is $6.5 million in the mental health safety net, prioritizing school-aged children with mental health diagnoses. This investment is important, because only 43% of Tennesseans with a mental health disorder received mental health treatment last year.
Governor Lee proposed a marquee state initiative to make Tennessee a national leader in foster care and adoption. His budget proposed extending TennCare coverage for children in foster homes to the age of 18, providing much needed financial relief for foster families and vital healthcare for children in foster care. One in four children in foster care have a diagnosed disability upon entering Kindergarten. Without easy access to vital services, that number jumps to one in two children in foster care living with a disability by the time they enter 8th grade. We applaud the Lee administration for recognizing and addressing this need.
Finally, Governor Lee proposed modernizing Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) in Tennessee. While the details of the initiative are unclear, distributing the over $700 million in TANF reserves available to the state will no doubt improve the lives of countless Tennesseans. We look forward to learning more about the Governor’s proposal. Also included is $9.7 million funding to increase the rate of pay of direct support professionals under contract with the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities from $10 to $10.50 per hour. While pay increases will be an important tool in addressing the workforce crisis, we are concerned that this proposed increase will not go far enough.
The Governor's budget proposal for fiscal year 2021-22 was released during his State of the State Address. Importantly, Governor Lee recommends an increase of $11 million to add 300 enrollees in crisis to the Employment and Community First (ECF) CHOICES Program.