Republican legislative leaders praised Gov. Bill Lee's 2021 State of the State speech, with many calling it a “conservative” approach to governing. Democratic lawmakers and some educational officials countered that the state isn’t doing enough to support those most impacted by the pandemic even though the state is seeing better-than-expected revenue returns. (Screen capture)

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee offered a cautious message of hope Monday in a state drastically upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, unveiling his administration’s top legislative priorities and spending plan for the upcoming year to lawmakers.

In his third annual State of the State speech, the Republican focused heavily on his administration’s response to the virus outbreak. Lee vigorously defended the approach his administration has taken in a state that repeatedly ranked per capita among the worst case numbers for weeks after the Thanksgiving holiday and has recently been in the bottom 10 for vaccine distribution rates for people who have received at least one dose per capita.

“Despite the challenges associated with COVID-19, we have managed these with very limited restrictions on Tennessee business and citizens, and when they have been required they were targeted and temporary,” said Lee, who has rebuffed calls for a statewide mask mandate.

Lee acknowledged the virus threatened to overwhelm the state’s hospitals in late 2020, but praised Tennesseans’ personal choices in those critical weeks as case counts and hospitalization races trended downward of recent.

“There was more pressure than ever to implement lockdowns and mandates and stay at home orders — but we trusted our people,” Lee said.

Republican legislative leaders were quick to praise the governor’s speech, with many calling it a “conservative” approach to governing. However, Democratic lawmakers and some educational officials countered that the state isn’t doing enough to support those most impacted by the pandemic even though the state is seeing better-than-expected revenue returns. Particularly, education advocates believe the teacher pay increases should be much higher.

Lee unveiled a $41.8 billion budget proposal for fiscal year 2021-22 — a 3.2% increase from the year prior — touting its teacher pay increases, record-breaking allocations for capital maintenance projects and $150 million more in funding for COVID-19 relief efforts.

Also included in the proposed budget is $200 million to expand internet access throughout Tennessee, $200 million in local infrastructure grants and $6.6 million for a pilot program to extend postpartum coverage for women on the state’s Medicaid program from 60 days to 12 months.

Lee had previously called a special legislative session earlier this year, lasting four days, which focused on education challenges brought on by the pandemic. Fallout from the outbreak is likely to continue to dominate the state’s current, regular session.

Also during that session, Republican lawmakers are expected to push again to allow most adults 21 and older to carry firearms — concealed or openly — without a license that now requires a background check and training.

Lee backed the idea last year, though the proposal and others were put on hold early in the virus outbreak. It carries an estimated $17.7 million price tag because it increases penalties on gun-related crimes and anticipates more incarcerations as a result.

Absent from his speech, and his proposed budget, was any revival of his early 2020 push to offer up to 12 weeks of annual paid family leave for state workers who become parents, have to care for a family member or experience other life-altering events.

Lee last year announced he would put the change into effect through executive order and featured it in his annual address, but retreated amid pushback from Republican lawmakers. He has said some version of the expansion would be proposed in a legislative bill, though it’s unclear if the idea would gain traction.

Monday’s speech did include a warning to the new presidential administration from Lee, who initially refused to acknowledge former President Donald Trump had lost the 2020 election.

“With elections behind us, we will watch with patriotic skepticism to see if politicians in Washington try to force more government on the states than the Tenth Amendment allows,” Lee said, referencing the constitutional protections for states’ rights. “Why? Because Tennessee knows what we need a lot better than the federal government.”

That line received a standing ovation from Republican lawmakers. Meanwhile, Lee’s proposal to allocate more funding for mental health initiatives received more muted responses, while some — but not all — Republicans offered a standing ovation for the permitless carry bill.

Overall, the speech served several reminders that Lee is entering reelection mode for his 2022 race. He promised to once again visit all 95 Tennessee counties — reminiscent of a feat when he first ran for governor in 2018.

The pandemic forced the speech to be moved to an auditorium on the Capitol grounds to space out seating. Still, in a Legislature that does not require wearing face masks, a couple dozen lawmakers didn’t have them on — or took them off during the speech.

Since early May, 54 legislative staffers and lawmakers have tested positive for COVID-19 at some point, an official noted. That includes Republican Rep. David Byrd, who has undergone a long hospitalization and has not yet returned to the Capitol.