The responsibilities of a governor are numerous, but there are four main priorities that every state’s top executive must work toward improving. Looking at Gov. Bill Lee’s results, does he deserve a passing grade? You be the judge.
One priority is to ensure that our infrastructure is sound. Are roads safe? Are bridges in good condition? Are our transportation systems adequate for population growth? A recent report from the American Society of Civil Engineers gives our state a C. You might think, “Well, a C is a passing grade — there’s room for improvement, but OK.” Well, a C is just one step above trouble, and it raises a good question: What’s happened with the money earmarked for infrastructure improvements from Gov. Bill Haslam’s IMPROVE Act? Remember that? It’s been more than five years since Haslam signed that legislation into effect, and Tennessee receives a C grade today? After last year’s worrisome news that the Hernando De Soto Bridge in Memphis — a bridge that sees tens of thousands of vehicles every day — had a crack so massive that the Mississippi River could be seen through it? Gracious. Gov. Lee certainly needs to bring us up from this C grade. Who wants infrastructure that is only barely adequate? Anything below an A is reason for concern.
A second responsibility of a governor is to increase employment and encourage economic growth. Has Gov. Lee championed the efforts of the White House to do just that in the past two years? No. Instead of crediting President Joe Biden for a plan that created 500 jobs from Tritium — a company that manufactures electric vehicle chargers — Lee announced the growth with no acknowledgement of Biden’s invaluable input. The company itself credited Biden’s legislation as its reason for choosing Tennessee. Not very statesmanlike, I’d say. What’s more, critics have noted that Lee’s efforts to cram a right-to-work law into the state constitution are unnecessary and dangerous, because the newly passed amendment could alienate some of our most vital industries — namely, auto manufacturers and the businesses dependent upon them. Businesses, labor unions and manufacturing have coexisted relatively peacefully in Tennessee for decades. The state’s numerous preexisting statutes preserving right-to-work were sufficient and not under attack. Lee’s push for Amendment 1 seemed like a whole lot of bother over nothing — just a good chance of messing with the delicate balance between labor unions, the state and the massive industries that impact employment opportunities.
Point three: A governor is responsible for overseeing the health and welfare of a state’s residents. How has Lee accomplished this during his first term? For years, our state has been among those leading the nation in gun violence. According to a compelling 2020 op-ed by Beth Joslin Roth — policy director of The Safe Tennessee Project, a gun violence prevention organization — Tennessee was at the time 11th in the nation for firearm mortality. We were seventh in the nation for firearm homicide, and fourth — FOURTH — for young gun deaths and gun homicides. These stats were compiled both before and during Lee’s first administration, so what policies and decisions has he enacted to increase our public safety? He shoved through legislation eliminating handgun permits and appointed to our state board of education a man whose company sold ammunition to the 17-year-old El Paso, Texas, school shooter who killed 10 people! What in the world is Lee thinking? He promised us on the campaign trail that he was sensitive to the problems of crime and gun violence, after working with the prison-outreach group Men of Valor for decades. He said he would bring real improvements to the challenges facing our inner cities and our minorities, and deal with the crime and gun violence that affects all of us — but our underserved are worse off. His actions have spoken louder than his words.
A governor is also responsible for overseeing our public education system. Where to begin there? Lee’s former henchman Glen Casada twisted arms in the state legislature so strongly in order to pass the governor’s school voucher legislation that it was embroiled in federal court for years. Casada’s strong-arm tactics also helped bring about a federal investigation into the former state House speaker’s many suspected dealings. Lee has ignored the outcry of public educators over the risks involved in diverting funds away from public schools into school vouchers and charter schools. Has he listened? No. He has doubled down on dismantling our traditional public schools. The Hillsdale debacle will go down in history as a mark of shame. The school voucher program has emerged from its mothballed condition in federal court and been fast-tracked to be implemented quite soon — with public schools in Memphis and Nashville bracing for impact.
Tennesseans should have concerns about how Gov. Bill Lee has performed in regard to these four most basic priorities. We expect better. But more importantly, Tennessee deserves better!
Bill Freeman is the owner of FW Publishing, the publishing company that produces the Nashville Scene, Nfocus, the Nashville Post and The News.