Tuesday, February 06, 2007

2007 State of the State Address

State of the State Address
Governor Brad Henry
February 5, 2007

On the Move

This is a historic time. On the cusp of our state’s second century, we gather here, chosen by the people of Oklahoma to chart a course for our future: a course not solely for the coming legislative session, but for the next 100 years.

Oklahoma is on the move. Indeed, it always has been. From our flowing rivers to waving tallgrass prairies, from our bustling cities to cutting-edge research at our colleges and universities, Oklahoma is a state defined by motion.

How appropriate, then, that ours is the only state settled by a land run – thousands of schooners, horses and runners charging across the plains at the crack of a gun. Cities sprang up overnight where the day before stood only prairie and the promise of a vibrant tomorrow.

We remained a people on the move. It was an Oklahoman, Cyrus Avery, who came to be known as the Father of Route 66 for his work in creating the famed “Mother Road”; and, fittingly, Oklahoma boasted more miles of the celebrated highway than any other state. Aviation pioneers like Wiley Post and Clyde Cessna hailed from this land, and more astronauts came from Oklahoma than from any other state.

And no wonder. Oklahomans are visionary, creative, industrious. We are tenacious and resolute, traits we have exemplified again and again over the last century – most recently last month, when massive ice and snow storms battered our state.

The damage was staggering, but not insurmountable. At one time, more than 125,000 homes and businesses were without power. Many had no heat, and some communities temporarily lost the capability to provide fresh water to residents.

But as we always do during times of adversity, Oklahomans pulled together to help those in need. They saw what needed to be done, and they did it.

We are a people who forge ahead, but we also hold true to the fundamentals that define us. We dream big, but we stay firmly rooted in our faith and our families. It is faith that gives us strength, and our families that give us comfort.

I would like to take a moment to introduce the source of my own comfort and inspiration, my family.

My family is always at the forefront of my thoughts, just as I suspect each of you consider your families and loved ones to be your top priority. I imagine that’s what led most of us to public service. We are here to see that Oklahoma remains a place for families to thrive and prosper. We all have hopes and dreams that the Oklahoma family will reach unparalleled heights of prosperity and accomplishment.

Oklahoma momentum

And so we find ourselves uniquely positioned in this, our centennial year, to make such dreams a reality. Just as our adventurous pioneer spirit characterized Oklahoma’s first century, so, too, will today’s actions bring shape and definition to Oklahoma’s second century. Now is the time to build upon our unique heritage, with a reverence for Oklahoma’s proud past and an enthusiasm for a fantastic future.

And we are well-positioned for even greater things. Oklahoma is booming, competitive in the global economy, and a leader in energy and biotech, aviation and aerospace. We’ve seen 100,000 new jobs created in less than four years. Unemployment is low. Our economic and per capita income growth consistently ranks among the best in the nation. Our early childhood education programs are hailed as the finest in the entire country. College enrollment is at record levels.

I am proud of all that we’ve accomplished together these past four years. But, as I said in my inaugural address, it’s now time to build on our momentum. Before us is an incredible opportunity to create positive, enduring changes that will define Oklahoma’s second century and help usher in a bright and brilliant tomorrow.

And a great future begins with a great education. As Proverbs 16:16 tells us, “How much better to get wisdom than gold, to choose understanding rather than silver!”

One of the most important things we can do for our children is to give them the tools early on to succeed in school. The child who begins late or falls behind may never catch up in today’s fast-paced educational environment. And yet, experts tell us that perhaps as many as half of all children entering kindergarten are not emotionally or intellectually ready for the challenges of school.

The benefits of early childhood education are numerous and well-established. Children who participate are more likely to display stronger reading skills and perform better in school. They are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college. They are less likely to have disciplinary problems, require remediation or end up in our corrections system. One study even notes that for every dollar spent on such programs, taxpayers save another $7 in public assistance costs.

Fortunately, Oklahoma has taken the lead. Our early childhood education programs for 4 year olds are considered the best in the nation. That success is due to the hard work of dedicated organizations like the Oklahoma Partnership for School Readiness, as well as strong preschool proponents like Tulsa’s visionary businessman, George Kaiser – and, my personal favorite education adviser, Kim Henry.

Now it’s time to move to the next level. I ask that you join me in launching efforts to ensure that each school district can ultimately offer the option of early childhood education for every 3 year old in Oklahoma. Let’s give parents that opportunity and help make sure that our youngest generation receives the essential tools for future success.

But disadvantaged children need even more help. For them, there is real promise in offering more intensive programs such as Educare, which is doing so much for at-risk children in the Tulsa area. This program has been so successful that the Inasmuch Foundation and the Kaiser Foundation are now bringing it to Oklahoma City. The Kaiser Foundation has indicated it will match up to $15 million in funds invested by the State of Oklahoma in this public-private partnership. We can leverage taxpayer dollars – and double our money – to bring critical help to the children who need it most.

In the global marketplace of the 21st century, a college or CareerTech degree is more crucial than ever before. But many young people find it a challenge to obtain even a high school diploma.

We are capable of doing better. This session, I ask you to support tough legislation to ensure that every Oklahoma teenager completes high school. Let us resolve that within five years Oklahoma will boast the highest high school graduation rate in the entire country.

We must also work toward producing more college graduates. Fortunately, we’re making great strides. College enrollment continues to increase, and the number of our college graduates has risen by more than 20 percent since 2002.

We need to capitalize on that momentum. One of the best ways to do so is through our Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program. Also known as Oklahoma’s Promise, it makes a simple, but profound, pledge to eligible students. If you take a challenging curriculum, make good grades and stay out of trouble, the State of Oklahoma will pay for your college education. Students who participate in Oklahoma’s Promise are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college. They are less likely to need remediation and more likely to earn a college degree.

It’s time to secure a permanent, dedicated funding source for Oklahoma’s Promise. It’s academic: If we can get more young people in this scholarship program, we will produce more college graduates in Oklahoma. Oklahoma’s Promise is worth keeping our promise to Oklahoma students.

Three years ago, we embarked on an ambitious journey to increase teacher pay to at least the regional average. We agreed that no longer would Oklahoma stand by and allow neighboring states to lure away our best and brightest educators. This year we must reaffirm our commitment to our teachers with a pay raise.

And our commitment to teachers must be long-term. All of us know the teachers’ retirement system has become a gaping budgetary hole that threatens the fiscal stability of our future. Will Rogers once cautioned that when you find yourself in a hole, the first step is to stop digging. Sensible advice. This year, let’s begin serious work to shore up the teachers’ retirement system and ensure its future viability for Oklahoma educators.

Our colleges, too, deserve special attention. Oklahoma has made good headway toward eliminating the backlog of endowed chairs. Let’s cleanup that backlog this session with a $75 million bond issue that will leverage another $75 million in private donations.

Education is only the first step to the future. A prosperous Oklahoma is a healthy Oklahoma, and among the most urgent issues facing us today is health insurance. Nearly one in every five Oklahomans is uninsured. That isn’t their problem; that’s everyone’s problem. Citizens without health insurance end up in our emergency rooms, and the cost of their medical treatment is then passed on to the insured in the form of higher premiums. In fact, healthcare experts report that 30 percent of premium increases are due to such cost-shifting.

That we have so many uninsured is unacceptable, especially when it comes to our children. During a prayer service before my inauguration last month, I had the honor of hearing from a number of religious leaders. Among them was Bishop Robert Hayes, leader of the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference.

Declaring that he was speaking for those who could not speak for themselves, Bishop Hayes issued a challenge to all of us when he said, “If representatives from government, religious and secular communities work together, we can send a very clear message to the people of Oklahoma in this, our centennial year; that our children are our priority – and if that is the case, what Oklahoma will receive in return will be more than we could ever dream or ever imagine.” Bishop Hayes made it clear that it’s our moral responsibility as policymakers and private citizens to make children our priority. And he’s right. Our children must be our priority.

Together, let’s make sure that Oklahoma’s Medicaid coverage includes every child who can be covered under the federally-imposed guidelines. By increasing eligibility to the maximum allowed, we can ensure healthcare coverage for 42,000 more Oklahoma children – and our federal partner will pay for more than two-thirds of it.

We must also help our small businesses and hard-working families cope with the rising costs of health insurance. The Insure Oklahoma program has been an innovative tool in providing health coverage to eligible workers. Under this first-of-its-kind program, the state pays 60 percent of the insurance costs, the employer pays 25 percent and the employee pays the remaining 15 percent. Insure Oklahoma has won national accolades and just recently was recognized by the Bush Administration as an example of the type of creative initiative needed to increase health insurance coverage.

This session, I propose that we increase Insure Oklahoma’s eligibility to the maximum limit allowed by the federal government. That change means as many as 118,000 uninsured Oklahomans could make use of this exciting program to obtain health insurance.

Oklahoma seniors continue to carry the burden of high prescription drug costs. Currently, American seniors – many on a fixed income – are subsidizing pharmaceutical companies by purchasing medicines that can be bought in other countries for far less money.

That is unfair, unwise and unconscionable. The health of Oklahomans, especially the health of our valued seniors, is too important to delay action any longer. This year, I again urge you to allow the re-importation of American-made prescription drugs from Canada and other industrialized nations, and deliver them to Oklahomans at substantial savings. Pricing our seniors out of good health is too great a price to pay.

Our economic health is also a top priority. Today’s economy is a global economy, an accelerated economy in which innovation and invention are no longer luxuries, but necessities.

Oklahoma is meeting that challenge with dynamic initiatives like the EDGE Endowment and the Opportunity Fund, programs that nurture the best jobs of today and tomorrow. Already, we’ve reaped dividends from these initiatives. The Opportunity Fund was a major factor in the decision by MG Motors to build an assembly plant in Ardmore and locate its North American headquarters in Oklahoma City.

Let’s build on that progress this session with significant deposits to EDGE and the Opportunity Fund from surplus revenues. In addition, let’s provide bonding authority of up to $200 million for the Opportunity Fund to help secure the best jobs of the future.

As the United States works to reduce a dangerous dependence on foreign oil, Oklahoma is ideally suited to play a defining role. Our state’s vibrant oil and gas industry has made Oklahoma a worldwide force in energy, and that proud industry also embraces biofuels as an important energy source of the future.

I ask for your support in the creation of the Oklahoma Bioenergy Center. This world-class facility will bring together the top scientific talent in Oklahoma to undertake research in, and development of, biofuels.

The possibilities are limitless. Not only will the Bioenergy Center be a tremendous investment in a diversified economy, it will mean a cleaner environment, thousands of high-paying jobs and a significant revitalization of rural Oklahoma. Our state has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to establish itself as a global leader in this fuel of the future -- but we must act now.

Economic health means more than available jobs; it means ensuring a workforce with the skills necessary for those jobs. We have made great strides in this arena. Much of the credit must go to Steve Hendrickson of Boeing, as well as Deputy Secretary of Commerce Norma Noble. They’ve done yeoman’s work with the innovative Council on Workforce and Economic Development.

But there is more to do. According to a recent survey of employers, 39 percent delayed expansion due to worker shortages. That’s why I urge you to help guarantee that our workforce has the training necessary to receive a Career Ready Certificate. This certificate would assure employers that Oklahoma’s workforce has the fundamental skills necessary for the workforce of tomorrow.

Most of us in this chamber are here because our constituents sent us here. They placed their trust in us, and in return we must pledge to them a government of complete openness and transparency.

Every Oklahoman deserves to know how their tax dollars are spent. This year, I ask for your help in establishing an easily accessible Web site in which citizens can see exactly how their money is spent. We demand accountability of state agencies and departments, and it’s only fair that voters demand accountability from us.

Public safety is also of critical importance, and that means a rigorous enforcement of law that protects the public and punishes criminals. And yet the reality is, year after year, our state prisons fill to capacity, taking up space for violent criminals and draining millions of tax dollars that might instead be used for programs proven to reduce recidivism and lower crime.

The most basic function of government is the protection of its citizens. For too long, however, we have administered a one-size-fits-all approach that addresses the symptoms of crime, and too few of the causes. Being tough on crime and being smart about crime are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are one and the same when it comes to aggressive programs to treat people with substance abuse and mental health issues. That means punishing low-level, non-violent offenders in a more effective way that better protects public safety. It also means requiring them to seek treatment for their addictions and work to pay restitution and the cost of their sentencing.

In many cases, drug and alcohol addiction leads to other offenses. While incarcerated, many inmates do not receive the substance abuse and mental health treatment they need, and upon release, they return to old neighborhoods, old friends, and old habits. They are all but assured of returning to prison.

However, there is a smarter way. If we act now to end this vicious cycle, we can create substantial savings over time and make our streets safer for all Oklahomans.

The time is now

I am excited about the challenges and work ahead. Together we have achieved much on behalf of our state, but our task is not yet complete – not by a long shot.

There are some skeptics who predict little of worth will come from this legislative session. They expect to see only political gamesmanship and partisan bickering.

But I don’t believe that, and I hope you don’t, either. Divisiveness destroys success, and too much is at stake for us to surrender to the pitfalls of partisanship. There is no glory in gridlock, but the rewards of working together – of joining forces on behalf of our fellow Oklahomans – are truly without limit.

The winter storms of last month are a powerful reminder of what can happen when Oklahomans pull together. When the storms knocked out power in much of McAlester, the hospital’s emergency room became swamped with patients. A general practitioner in town, Dr. Gregory Rogers, decided he needed to do his part to help. While much of McAlester was at a standstill, Dr. Rogers opened his office to treat any and all patients, regardless of their ability to pay. And because there was no power, he worked by flashlight and candlelight. He simply did what he had to do.

Dr. Rogers and his wife Judy are with us in the gallery today, and we are honored by their presence.

In this magnificent year of our centennial, each of us is privileged to witness this moment in history first-hand. But we must do more than merely stand by as idle eyewitnesses to history. We must be the movers and makers of history. We must be the agent for change and the engine that propels Oklahoma forward.

I’ve offered several ideas that I believe will move us forward. Other ideas will come, and they are welcome. But let us work together to find common ground and begin a successful second century in the Oklahoma way.

This is a historic time. Our vision and our actions must be no less historic.

God bless you and God bless Oklahoma.

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