NEWPORT—Rural Tennessee was one of Governor Bill Lee’s top priorities during the heated 2018 gubernatorial campaign.

Lee outlined that those are still at the top of his administration’s list during a visit to Cocke County on Friday, less than two months after taking office.

It was the first stop in Cocke County as Governor for Lee, who spoke for nearly 30 minutes about the top priorities of his administration to constituents in an event at the Newport Community Center and hosted by the Cocke County Partnership.

Lee, who said he’s learned a lot during the first two months on the job, said that now he’s in the Governor’s office means that talking about things on the campaign trail has transitioned into putting things into action.

Just days into office, Lee wrote an executive order which was designed to strengthen rural counties in Tennessee.

“It was an order that caused every department to be held accountable for their actions on rural Tennessee, especially for the 15 distressed counties,” Lee told those in attendance on Friday.

Also while in the heart of the legislative session, Lee said he has rolled out a legislative agenda of the items he heard from Tennesseans on the campaign trail. That agenda, he says, is focused on Tennesseans desires for good jobs, good schools and safe neighborhoods.

As part of that agenda, Lee said he has rolled out in his budget proposal increased funding for vocational education, future workforce initiatives and the basic education program (BEP).

“Education is the most important thing that determines our future,” Lee said. “Education is a lot more than a test score. It’s about preparing a kid for life.

“I have a fundamental belief that education should be lined up with a career and job creators (needs).”

Lee also touched on his Education Savings Accounts (ESA), which he formally outlined and announced during last week’s State of the State Address.

“(ESA) won’t impact this community or these (distressed) counties,” Lee said. “It’s not designed around changing things in rural Tennessee, but instead about investing in our failing schools in urban centers.”

Lee said that the only impact he foresees on rural communities by ESAs is that improvement of the state’s education system as a whole.

Later, during the question and answer portion of Lee’s visit, Dr. Ken Johnson — member of the Cocke County Board of Education, questioned the Governor citing local concerns on the ESA and voucher programs taking funding away from the public school systems.

“Voucher proposals of the past have done that,” Lee said. “This is not that.

“The ESA only makes children eligible who are a low-income student living in a school district with three schools in the bottom 10 percent of the state,” he said. “Don’t worry about what (ESA’s) will do to these schools.”

Lee said as part of his budget proposal, $175 million new funds, including $71 million ear marked for teacher pay increases and fully funding BEP, will be allocated for public education.

“I’m committed to creating a good workforce,” Lee said.

The new Governor also touched on criminal justice reform during his 30-minute address on Friday. Citing his involvement in a prison ministry several years ago, he saw how little the current system was doing to help rehab inmates to become productive members of society.

While saying violent offenders and drug traffickers need to be met with swift and severe justice, that 95 percent of those currently in the criminal justice system will be released back into the communities.

The fact that there’s a near 50 percent recidivism rate in the state, is a major problem.

“I”m excited about implementing practices of smart re-entry,” Lee said. “Crime occurs in our neighborhoods and victims are people in our communities.

“We need to learn to re-enter people successfully, because one less crime, means one less victim,” Lee said.

At the end of his remarks, Lee issued a challenge to those in the room to become more involved in their communities and government. He said government isn’t the answer to everyone’s solutions.

“Government is not the answer to the challenges you face in your communities,” Lee said. “Government can’t solve it, it’s not the answer and sometimes government complicates your life.

“We the people are the answer. This is a government of the people, which means if you get engaged, it is how communities are successful. You all are the ones who will change the community. I will do what I can at the state level to inspire and make that happen.”

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