Monday, February 05, 2007

Gov. Henry Outlines Bold Agenda in State of the State Address; Challenges Lawmakers to Build on Historic Opportunity

Gov. Brad Henry today outlined an ambitious agenda in his fifth annual State of the State address with initiatives to strengthen education, provide greater access to adequate healthcare, create high-paying jobs, reduce crime and advance high-tech research and development. In his 31–minute address to a joint session of the Oklahoma State Legislature, Gov. Henry challenged lawmakers to aim high and take the necessary actions that will lead Oklahoma to unparalleled heights of accomplishment and prosperity.

“We find ourselves uniquely positioned in this, our centennial year, to make such dreams a reality,” the Governor said. “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.”

Gov. Henry offered sweeping proposals for education. He said he will push for an initiative to offer voluntary early childhood education for all 3-year-old children, building on Oklahoma’s nationally acclaimed preschool programs for 4 year olds.

“The benefits of early childhood education are numerous and well-established,” Gov. Henry said.

“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.”

The Governor also advanced measures to bolster public-private partnerships aimed at helping disadvantaged children, dramatically reduce high school dropouts, shore up the beleaguered teachers’ retirement system and raise teacher pay to the regional average.

In addition, Gov. Henry asked lawmakers to support a $75 million bond issue to help cleanup a backlog of endowed college chairs. Moreover, the Governor said it is time to find a permanent, dedicated funding source for Oklahoma’s Promise scholarship program. Also known as the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program, OHLAP covers college tuition for eligible students who meet certain criteria.

“It’s academic: If we can get more young people in this scholarship program, we will produce more college graduates in Oklahoma,” he said. “Oklahoma’s Promise is worth keeping our promise to Oklahoma students.”

In the healthcare arena, the Governor urged legislators to expand Medicaid coverage to include as many as 42,000 additional Oklahoma children. Similarly, he said he wants to increase eligibility for Insure Oklahoma, the state’s innovative health-insurance premium assistance program. The Governor noted that about 20 percent of Oklahomans are uninsured.

“That isn’t their problem; that’s everyone’s problem,” he stressed. “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.”

Gov. Henry also renewed his call to let Oklahoma seniors purchase U.S.-manufactured pharmaceuticals re-imported from Canada and other industrialized nations.

“Pricing our seniors out of good health is too great a price to pay,” the Governor said.

He put forth several items to boost economic development and job creation. He urged lawmakers to establish a Career Ready Certificate program to improve Oklahoma’s workforce, as well as tap surplus revenues for significant contributions to the EDGE Endowment and Opportunity Funds.

Looking to the emergence of biofuels as a viable renewable energy, the Governor proposed the creation of an Oklahoma Bioenergy Center to make the state a global leader in biofuels research and development.

“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,” said Gov. Henry. “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.”

Public safety is also a critical part of Gov. Henry’s legislative agenda. He told lawmakers that “being tough on crime and smart about crime are not mutually exclusive” when it comes to requiring substance abuse and mental health treatment for inmates who need it.

“In many cases, drug and alcohol addiction leads to other offenses,” he said. “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. 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 Governor also asked legislators to improve government transparency and openeness by establishing a user-friendly Web site that shows exactly how tax dollars are spent.

"We demand accountability of state agencies and departments,” Gov. Henry said, “and it’s only fair that voters demand accountability from us.” Finally, he called on legislators of both parties to work together in a spirit of bipartisanship. 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 Governor said.

"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.”

Gov. Henry’s speech was interrupted for applause on 24 occasions.

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