Gov. Bill Lee visited Loudon County July 9 as part of a multi-county stop asking what change Tennesseans want to see.
The visit occurred at the Loudon County Courthouse Annex and was a town hall type setting that included question and answer. There he touched on issues such as education, criminal reform, hospital closures and agriculture.
â€œI would say itâ€™s the most encouraging thing that weâ€™ve heard and that is that people do feel hopeful that we are going to be able to make real progress in criminal justice reform,â€ Lee said. â€œThereâ€™s a lot of agreement, and itâ€™s broad agreement, that efforts weâ€™re making in criminal justice reform are going to work. Thereâ€™s a real understanding that we do have a deep commitment to public education and I think people are hopeful. Weâ€™ve done five events today and I feel a great sense of hope as we listen to the voices of the people out there.â€
Lee pointed to actions helping with criminal reform, including removal of an expungement fee for clearing peopleâ€™s records, investing in education for those incarcerated and alternative sentencing that still allows people to pay for their crime.
â€œYou know, 95 percent of everybody sitting in a jail cell is going to come out and theyâ€™re going to come out into our community and right now half of them are going to recommit a crime in their first three years and go back,â€ Lee said. â€œAnother victim, another crime, another expense to taxpayers. So what I saw in prison re-entry work was if we can successfully re-enter people then we create safe neighborhoods all over Tennessee.â€
Hopes are changes will help people like Oak Ridge resident Brandon Benson, who was present for the meeting. Benson said he has had a felony on his record since 2001. Since then heâ€™s worked to put his past behind him and better himself for his family.
â€œI paid my fines, everything â€” everything the court asked me to do I did it,â€ Benson said. â€œSo we sent my information in and weâ€™ve been working on it for the last five years, so everything was finished. So they sent everything back and they denied it. My part Iâ€™m asking, whereâ€™s the second chance for a person that really is honest and a person thatâ€™s really trying to make a difference and a person thatâ€™s really trying to make a change in the community, in society as a whole? It hurt me so bad because all I want to do is provide for my family, my four kids, my wife.â€
Lee noted Benson was a â€œpicture of what needs to be happening all across the state.â€
Education was also discussed.
Loudon County resident Pat Hunter asked about the governorâ€™s commitment to Basic Education Program funding.
Lee said public schools are the â€œbackbone for educationâ€ in the state. He knows there is work to be done, pointing toward Tennessee ranked 38th in the country.
â€œI do think we have to fund them more,â€ Lee said. â€œWe fully funded the BEP in this budget cycle as well as adding money to it. We added to teacher pay also. But just putting more money into a system without challenging, just putting more money into the same way weâ€™re doing things and have been doing them for 20 years, to me is not a wise use of your money. We spend $5 (billion)-$6 billion in education. Itâ€™s your money that youâ€™re spending on education in Tennessee. You should be advocating for and hopeful that people are challenging the system to provide better outcome than 38 out of 50.â€
He noted the â€œvery controversialâ€ education savings account bill that he believes could help education in the long run.
â€œHereâ€™s what I say about either charter initiatives or education savings account choices for parents to have options for their kids,â€ Lee said. â€œWhat that will do for us (is) it will give us a best practice. We will learn something about educating kids through using innovative and creative and unique pilot programs that then will allow us to take those best practices back into the broader public schools. Make no mistake, the vast majority of our children are going to be educated through our public school systems.
â€œWe have to be wholly and wholeheartedly committed to their advancement, but my commitment is not just to put more money in it, it is to challenge improvement in those as well just like any of yaâ€™ll would do in your business,â€ he added.
The governor also touched on his recent trip to Asia, noting there are 200 Japanese businesses in Tennessee. The companies in Tennessee employ 52,000 people. He said companies like Tennessee because of its low taxes, strong commitment to workforce development and it being a â€œbusiness friendly state.â€
â€œThereâ€™s a lot of companies in other countries that want to invest in America and so I want them, if theyâ€™re going to think about America, they need to think about Tennessee,â€ Lee said. â€œBut one of the things they ask me, in particular some of the rural counties, is, â€˜Do you have any skilled work force there? Do you have people that are going to fill these out? We can bring 500 jobs here but can you fill them?â€™ Thatâ€™s why we have to invest so that they are good paying jobs and these are companies that do have benefits and that are able to provide a better living wage for people going forward.â€