Gov. Bill Lee took the oath of office for a second term on Saturday, pledging to improve Tennessee’s transportation system, improve care for children in state custody, and improve protections for the environment.
Bright sunshine warmed the January morning as Lee, 63, was sworn in on War Memorial Plaza in Nashville. First Lady Maria Lee, who has been undergoing treatment for lymphoma for the last several months, stood by the governor's side dressed in a powder blue coat and white fur hat. Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Page administered the oath.
Just after the swearing-in the Tennessee National Guard commenced a 21-gun salute and helicopter flyover. Nearly all of Tennessee's living former governors attended the ceremony: Winfield Dunn, Lamar Alexander, Phil Bredesen and Bill Haslam. Members of Tennessee’s Congressional delegation, the Tennessee Supreme Court, and a quorum of the State Legislature were also on the dais. More than 1,500 people were ticketed to attend the ceremony.
Lee, a Republican, did not face a primary challenger and handily won re-election last November after defeating Democratic challenger Dr. Jason Martin with nearly 65% of the vote. Due to state term limits, Lee's second term will be his last in the office.
During his address, Tennessee’s 50th governor reflected on the challenges that shaped his first four years in office, from floods and tornadoes to the COVID-19 pandemic and 2020 Christmas Day bombing in Nashville. Lee called post-flood rebuilding efforts in Waverly, Tenn., “a stark picture of redemption and hope.”
“While Maria and I are in a time of struggle, we know that we are not alone in these hardships,” Lee said. “In times of struggle, we can find great hope.”
Lee’s Christian faith was a strong theme of his address, which was framed on the parable of the three servants from Matthew 25. In that parable, a man entrusts wealth to three servants before going on a journey; two servants multiply their treasure, while one buries it and earns nothing.
“Because of his fear of failure, he multiplied for no one,” Lee said. “May that never be me – or you.”
Lee likened the state’s conservative fiscal policies to the first two servants, touting the state’s low tax rate, per-capita debt, and growing economy, to applause from the crowd. Democrats often criticize conservative Republican leadership for declining to spend available resources to benefit Tennessee citizens: the state closed the 2022 fiscal year with a $1.6 billion unbudgeted tax surplus -- 28% more revenue than lawmakers budgeted. The state also maintains a rainy-day fund which amounts to about $1.8 billion.
“You and I, and this state, have been entrusted with treasures, not meant to be buried but to be spent on helping our fellow man,” Lee said. “We should recognize our treasures, celebrate our accomplishments, and be challenged by what lies ahead.”
Lee touted accomplishments from his first term, including his administration’s overhaul of public funding for K-12 education passed last year, and the state’s Medicaid waiver, which changes to the way the state receives funding for TennCare. Lee also touted his administration’s work to recruit the Ford Motor Company to rural west Tennessee but did not mention the $886 million in taxpayer-paid incentives that closed the deal.
Looking to the next four years, Lee pledged to work to improve the state’s aging transportation infrastructure and bolster the state’s energy strategy. Lee recently announced a plan to ask the legislature to authorize privately managed toll option lanes to reduce traffic congestion and raise revenue for the state’s significant backlog of road projects.
“We need a transportation strategy and an energy strategy designed for one of the fastest growing states in America,” Lee said.
Lee also pledged to enhance protections for natural resources and the environment (though he did not provide details of those plans) and promised to improve services for children in state custody. Last month, an audit of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services found that allegations of child abuse and neglect have gone uninvestigated as the department’s high staff turnover rate has damaged its ability to keep children safe.
Lee dismissed critics “who thrive on toxic incivility and divisiveness,” and challenged Tennesseans to disagree without “forgetting the dignity of the other human being.”
“We should never believe differences are a platform for demonization, or that one man has a greater value than another. Civility is not a weakness,” Lee said.
The governor made no mention of the state’s strict abortion ban, which took effect last August after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and prohibits termination of any pregnancy from fertilization until birth. The new law has caused delays to care for women in pregnancy crisis as doctors consult with hospital legal teams.
Neither was any mention of the state’s new law, championed by Lee, which allows legal gun owners to carry without a permit.
Senate Democratic Caucus Chair London Lamar issued a statement in response to Lee’s inaugural address, offering to partner with Lee’s administration “if the governor is ready to begin working to improve life for everyday Tennesseans.”
“We hope Gov. Lee’s second term is defined by expanding access to affordable health care, housing and childcare; strengthening our public schools, our democracy and state services; and a rejection of the extreme partisanship and division that marked his first term,” Lamar said.
Prior to the inaugural ceremony, Lee participated in a worship service held at the Ryman Auditorium, which included Christian worship music and scripture readings by Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael W. Smith, Chris McClarney, Nicole Mullen, Chris Tomlin and the Fisk University Jubilee Singers.