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.

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.

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