During his tour of East Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee stopped in Tazewell on Wednesday for a town hall at the old Claiborne County Courthouse.
Nearly 100 people fought through the rain to pack the courthouse in what seemed to be more of a campaign stump speech than a town hall, Lee explained his first legislative initiative aimed at rural areas.
Called the Governor’s Investment for Vocational Education Act, Lee told attendees education will a top priority for all Tennesseans during his administration. The law will put more students into vocational programs leading to fulfilling and high-paying careers.
Lee first proposed the GIVE Act in February, and the legislation was brought to the General Assembly by Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson and House Majority Leader William Lamberth.
“(The GIVE Act) will be a significant piece of legislation. Education is going to change in Tennessee,” Lee said.
Touting his upbringing in the rural areas of the state, Lee said improving the education and employment levels in rural areas such as Claiborne County will help all 95 counties in the state. As part of that initiative, Lee issued his first executive order as governor, mandating a statement of impact for every rural county in Tennessee within six months.
Claiborne County is one of 15 distressed counties in the state, and Lee said the executive order will help those areas – including Claiborne County.
“To be a guy that has been concerned about our rural areas for many years, it’s an honor for me to sign that executive order,” he said.
While Lee centered his speech on rural areas, he also said the inner cities and high-crime areas of the state will benefit from his legislative proposals, including the GIVE Act. Lee told the packed house the legislation will lower crime and recidivism rates in the state, saying the state’s current inmate population should get another chance to become beneficial members of society.
“If they obtain a (job) certificate while in prison, (inmates) have a 40 percent better chance of not going back to prison,” he said. “I would rather pay for education for these people than pay to reincarcerate them.
“As taxpayers, you’re paying for this either way, so there is no reason not to support this.”
As important as the rural areas are to the state’s success, Lee said the inner cities are of equal importance.
“What happens to the inner cities affects the entire state,” he said. “If it fails, we’re talking about the prison system again.”
Tennessee ranks 38th in public education nationally. Lee said the governor’s office will do everything in its power to boost those numbers.
“(The low ranking) is not good enough for me. We have to do better,” he said. “Our public schools are the backbone of our education system (in the state).”
Lee also announced the creation of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, in which churches will align with nonprofit agencies, community-based agencies as well as the corporate sector to provide social services to distressed communities. He even shared a story about a church in suburban Nashville as part of a faith-based initiative program that would “adopt” a distressed county in the state.
“Government is not the answer. A governor can’t accomplish everything by himself,” Lee said. “The people need to engage. The nonprofits work with private sector and other agencies.
“That’s how real change happens.”