Lee toured the Mountain Harvest Kitchen, and after a brief walk through the Unicoi Farmers Market, stopped inside the town’s Tourist Information Center at 106 Unicoi Village Drive. for a meet-and-greet. He was joined at a table at the head of the room by state Sen. Rusty Crowe, Rep. John Holsclaw, R-Elizabethton, and Jim Buchanan, the former chair of the Unicoi County Republican Party. He spoke for about 10 minutes and then took questions from attendees.
"We only know how to represent you if we know you,” Lee said, “and that’s why I’m here today.”
Over the past year, Lee said he’s been able to work on issues that he was passionate about before he became governor, which have included improving education for kids in inner-cities, expanding access to vocational programs and pushing for reforms to the state’s criminal justice system, an issue that he said he recently discussed with President Donald Trump and the Trump administration.
“We met and have talked with the administration about what their efforts are nationally and how it is that those efforts can compliment what we’re doing here in this state,” Lee said after the meeting. “A number of governors met together with the Trump administration to talk about just what we’re doing in Tennessee, how we’re leading in that way but how we can work with the federal government to even magnify what we’re doing.”
Citing the importance of his faith and the role nonprofits play in the community, Lee also announced the creation of an office of faith-based and community initiatives in the governor’s office, which drew a round of applause from people in attendance.
“That office will serve as a liaison between nonprofits, community organizations, the faith community,” Lee said, which will allow the government to connect those organizations with other groups “doing good work” and provide resources to those groups.
“Government is not the answer to the greatest challenges we face in our communities,” Lee said. “We are. The people are the answer.”
Lee also recently signed a bill directing the governor’s office, through his commissioner of Finance and Administration, to begin negotiating with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to find a way to fund TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program, through a block grant. Lee said his administration is looking for an opportunity to create greater flexibility in how the state government receives and spends federal money.
“We want every Tennessean to have access to quality health care that they can afford and the way they do that is to construct a system that works for Tennessee,” he said, “so we’re pursuing that with the federal government and if we get a deal that improves that opportunity for us then we’ll continue to negotiate that way.”
He also called the passage of the Katie Beckett waiver, a supplemental insurance program designed to help families with children suffering from complex medical conditions, “a great thing for Tennessee and Tennesseans and Tennessee families.”
“Most importantly, it is a very powerful step for severely disabled children in the state who have needs that most others don’t,” he said. “I’m just honored to be a part of providing greater access and greater quality services to families that have some serious and real needs.”
Lee said rural Tennessee is “very, very important” to the economy of the state.
“If we forget our rural communities, our big thriving cities will suffer,” he said during the his remarks to constituents.
He pointed to an executive order he signed requiring all 23 state departments to submit to the governor an analysis of their individual department’s impact on rural counties. Those departments must each then submit a strategic plan, which Lee said are coming in now, on how they’re going to improve conditions in rural parts of the state.
“Rural Tennessee matters,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Jim Buchanan as the current chair of the Unicoi County Republican Party. He is actually the former chair.