State of the State speeches are highly significant for governors as they allow them to communicate their vision, priorities, and plans to the citizens and lawmakers of the state. The speech typically covers topics, including economic conditions, education, healthcare, infrastructure, public safety, and other crucial issues.
What can we expect from Governor Bill Lee’s upcoming State of the State address to the Tennessee General Assembly on Monday, February 5th? He has alluded to the theme of keeping Tennessee as a beacon of opportunity, security, and freedom. Those subjects are vague descriptions defined in diverse ways by different people. A healthy economy is necessary for freedom and opportunity. We already know our state must repeal the unconstitutional excise and franchise tax this year, which could easily cost $1 billion to $1.4 billion.
On June 16, 2011, Governor Bill Haslam signed a $30.8 billion state budget, yet by 2023 our state budget had grown to $56.2 billion budget under the current administration. The state’s spending grew due to strong revenue collections exceeding expectations. By adopting thoughtful spending and diverse public policy, the state can develop effective solutions to promote the well-being of all.
Our state’s economy is still strong but is slowing down. Tennessee is facing a budget shortfall of $610 million in projected revenue for the fiscal year and will need to adjust its budget and limit spending.
Tennessee Senator Bo Watson, Chair of the powerful Finance Ways and Means committee has been watching the financial indicators for the past two quarters and warning of bad economic headwinds for months. Watson has stated, “Spending discipline will be critical in the State’s next budget.” Growth in government spending will prove challenging this year.
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Lee has indicated he plans to pursue “universal” school vouchers this year. The key word here is universal which means that any child, including those who are already in private schools or being homeschooled, would qualify. For the 2024 school year, there are 1,907 public schools, serving 995,698 students in Tennessee. There are 582 private schools serving 105,420 students and about 15,000 homeschooled students. To give vouchers to over 120,000 students at $7,075 would be an incredible cost to Tennessee taxpayers.
For a voucher plan to be approved, it would most likely have to be restricted to students attending public schools, have a set limit on the number of students eligible, and be capped at a specific dollar amount. However, even with these limitations, it could still be difficult to pass any voucher plan. While offering universal vouchers may appeal to out-of-state special interests, it is uncertain whether the people of Tennessee would be willing to take on the added recurring cost to their state budget. Arizona enacted a similar program and has seen those costs skyrocket.
Term-limited governors face unique challenges. The politically savvy are already looking towards the future, specifically at who will be the next governor. Would a future Governor want to inherit economic challenges and spending on unnecessary programs that could inevitably jeopardize future services and programs? This too now has to be a consideration, as well as with state legislators who may aspire to higher office. The State of the State will be a must-watch this year. Pay attention to what Governor Lee says but let the state legislature know your priorities.