NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Lee on Monday proposed a $200 million investment into rural Tennessee broadband.
The proposal was detailed during the governor’s State of the State address, which he delivered to a joint session of the General Assembly, as well as a statewide TV audience, Monday evening.
Lee said the investment is necessary to boost internet speeds and level the playing field in rural Tennessee.
“Whether it’s running a small business, accessing virtual learning, or accessing health care via telemedicine, slow internet speeds have many in rural Tennessee left at a disadvantage,” Lee said, adding, “I am ready for us to solve this issue once and for all.”
Lee said the $200 million represents a “significant, one-time investment” that, combined with private investments, “will get broadband to just about every community in Tennessee.”
Scott County already has broadband access through Highland Telephone Cooperative.
Lee said broadband expansion will improve educational outcomes in the state’s rural areas.
The proposed $200 million investment, which is part of Lee’s proposed budget for FY 2021-2022, is a significant increase from the $15 million that was appropriated for rural broadband development last year.
State Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, applauded Lee’s proposal.
“Broadband connectivity is a critical investment in this state, particularly for our rural communities,” Yager said, adding that he was “delighted” by Lee’s proposal. “This investment will greatly enhance education and job growth by providing students with the ability to perform their assignments online and businesses with the essential access needed for 21st century jobs. In turn, this will strengthen our ability to recruit high quality jobs and advanced industries to our state.”
The broadband proposal was one of several “bold proposals” made by Lee as part of his budget.
Other proposals included $900 million in capital improvements on state buildings and higher education campuses, $30 million to eliminate the maintenance backlog at state parks, an additional $120 million for teacher compensation, $6.5 million to extend postpartum coverage for women who receive TennCare benefits from 60 days to 12 months, $2 million to increase the state’s health care safety net for those without health insurance, $6.5 million for the state’s mental health safety net with a focus on providing services to school-aged children who struggle with mental health issues, and $21 million for investments in rural communities and distressed counties to develop infrastructure and industrial site development while also revitalizing small town main streets.
The governor also proposed the first installment of funding for the Oak Ridge Institute, which will be a joint venture between the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Lab. It is expected to provide at least 500 jobs in East Tennessee.
Yager said the Oak Ridge Institute will enhance UT’s status “as a world premier research institute” while addressing “top-tier industry and work force needs,” and will be “a tremendous asset to our region and state.”
Lee said Tennessee’s budget is strong, which leads to room for his proposed new spending while maintaining a balanced budget.
“The differences are stark when you compare our state’s conservative budget to states with very different approaches,” he said.
Even with the new proposals, the governor said, his proposed budget will leave Tennessee with $2 billion in its combined Rainy Day and TennCare reserve funds — the most in the state’s history.
Lee took credit for using the state’s federal relief dollars to ensure the solvency of Tennessee’s unemployment trust fund, which he said reduced the tax burden on employers and encouraged hiring as a result. Tennessee has the nation’s lowest employer tax rate.
“Let me put this in practical terms: prudent management of the Unemployment Trust Fund staved off a projected 300% tax increase on Tennessee employers for unemployment insurance,” Lee said. “Now more than ever, we can look at our economic forecast and say: it matters who governs, and conservative principles work.”