With inauguration days away, Lee optimistic about first year in office

Zach Vance • Jan 15, 2019 at 5:48 PM

Despite the stress and strain involved with the transition to Tennessee’s highest office, Gov.-Elect Bill Lee is maintaining the same optimistic attitude that got him elected the state’s 50th governor.

With just three days left until his inauguration, Lee spoke to the Johnson City Press Tuesday about transitioning into public office for the first time and what his first-year legislative priorities will be.

“Right after the election, we started a process of primarily reaching out to Tennesseans, opening up our website and saying, ‘Give us ideas, send us resumes.’ We got 1,500 resumes and 2,500 ideas,” said Lee, who will replace the term-limited Bill Haslam.

“We started the process of going through that in order to select leaders and to select a team. I’m really encouraged with that. We will finish and complete our cabinet announcements this week.”

Just minutes before Tuesday’s interview, Lee’s office announced three more cabinet appointments for the departments of Transportation, Human Resources and Environment and Conservation. So far, Lee has appointed commissioners to lead 19 of the state’s 23 agencies.

“We’ve got highly competent folks. The caliber of people that have stepped up and wanted to serve has been really exciting to me. They come from all geographic regions of the state, and they all have real expertise in the individual jobs they’ll be filling. That’s exciting,” Lee said.

Lee plans to appoint leaders for the remaining departments of Education, General Services, Intellectual and Development Disabilities and Health before his inauguration Saturday.

Lee said to “stay tuned” when asked who he is considering to lead the Department of Health, a role that will directly influence health care in Northeast Tennessee, since that commissioner will oversee Ballad Health merger’s terms of certification.

“I think we’re going to name a couple (cabinet appointments) tomorrow or the next day. So we’ll have that real soon,” Lee said.

One of his first appointments, Stuart McWhorter, will head the Department of Finance Administration, and by Lee’s account Tuesday, McWhorter is already “deep” into the budgetary process.

“McWhorter is doing a remarkable job of shepherding that process,” Lee said.

“We’ve got ahead of us the process of taking the priorities that I talked about on the campaign trail, sort of merging them with the budget and coming up with a legislative package with specific ideas of how we’re going to move forward and advance the agenda.”

During his first year as governor, not to mention his first year ever serving in a political role, Lee said his priorities will revolve around education, criminal justice reform and economic development.

“We’re going to put a strong push on strengthening vocational and technical education in our K-12 system across the state. We’re looking at budget priorities around that. I believe that it’s the most important component of educational improvement that we need to make,” Lee said.

“We’re working on safe neighborhoods by looking at re-entry programs, and the way that we do re-entry and the way we can be smart on how we deal with folks re-entering society from incarceration. There are a lot of approaches to making that safer for Tennesseans. Because as people re-enter effectively, they’re much less likely to re-commit a crime and go back.”

Lee also mentioned alternative sentencing being a legislative priority by putting more resources into drug courts, mental health courts and veteran courts.

The governor-elect also traveled to Detroit on Monday with Haslam for the announcement that Volkswagen will invest $800 million in an electric vehicle manufacturing facility in Chattanooga. While discussing economic development with Haslam, Lee said Northeast Tennessee came up and the potential at Aerospace Park.

“The conversation centered around the fact that every region is important, that we need to have these kinds of wins all across the state. I am hopeful that our Economic Development team, along with leadership in Northeast Tennessee, for example, will in fact bring that kind of job creation to that region and the state,” Lee said.

“It’s very important to me that every region in the state prospers.”

Lee’s inauguration ceremony will start at noon EST Saturday at Legislative Plaza in Nashville. The event will be live-streamed at www.capitol.tn.gov.

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