MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Feb. 6 - Following is the prepared text of Gov. Bob Riley's (R) 2008 state of the state address:
Lieutenant Governor Folsom, Speaker Hammett, Senator Mitchem, Representative Newton, distinguished guests, fellow citizens and members of the Legislature:
As we gather tonight I just want to say that our prayers go out to the victims of last night's terrible storms and to their families. Their lives have been upended and it will be a while before things return to normal. But I pledge to them that our state and local agencies are responding as quickly as possible. And as our fellow citizens recover, I ask that you please keep them in your thoughts and prayers.
And before we discuss the State of the State, I want to say how proud I am about the record voter turnout we witnessed yesterday when more than a million of our citizens went to the polls. We can all be proud that, for the first time, Alabama had a real voice in the selection of our next president.
We have many special guests with us tonight; many people I will thank, but none more special to me than Alabama's First Lady, my wife Patsy. I want to thank Patsy for everything she has done: Blankets with a Blessing, the Parenting Assistance Line, the HEAL program for kids, and so much more. You are making a huge difference in so many lives.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is an honor to stand before you again to discuss the state we love, the progress we've made and the promise our future holds.
You and I are privileged to serve during a time of great consequence. A time that promises to be not a mere footnote in the history of our state, but a completely new chapter. So tonight, let us resolve once again that we will work for the people, not for our political parties, not for our own personal ambitions, and certainly not for the special interests. Let us resolve tonight that the only interest we will serve is the best interests of this great state.
A year ago, the people got our best. Last February we met in a special session and you passed our jobs plan. Then, the people ratified that choice. Now we can look back on an amazing year of economic victories. Alabama last year announced 441 new and expanding industries - industries that are creating more than 23,000 new jobs and investing an historic $6.7 billion in our state!
All of these new jobs are making a real difference in the lives of our citizens. As people in other states wring their hands and endure sleepless nights wondering if their job will be there next month, Alabama's economy has remained the envy of our region. Personal incomes are rising at a rate faster than any other Southern state. Our unemployment rate reached its lowest level in history. And finally Alabama stopped taxing its poorest families at the highest rate in the nation. I want to thank Representative John Knight and Representative Jay Love for working with a bipartisan coalition to give our working families the first tax relief in the history of our state.
As exciting as all this progress is, nothing is more exciting or more important as the gains we are making in education. The U.S. Secretary of Education said this progress is, quote - “phenomenal” - and that no other state has done more than Alabama to improve education. The reforms we've put in place are working. Since we last met, all states have received their grades on the nation's report card. And I am proud to say that Alabama led the nation in reading improvements in the fourth grade! But the good news doesn't stop there. Math scores in grades 4 and 8 doubled the nation's gains!
When was the last time you remember Alabama leading the nation in education? It's never happened before, but ladies and gentlemen, today it's a reality.
What was once considered to be only a hope became a decision - a decision not to tolerate mediocrity any longer. And that decision - to be the best in education - is redefining what it means to live and raise a family in the great state of Alabama.
But I believe what we've already accomplished pales in comparison to what we can accomplish now. So let's begin building that better future and let's start by passing serious, substantial and far-reaching ethics reforms. Speaker Hammett says this needs to be the House's first priority. I could not agree more and I want to thank him for that commitment.
Over the last few months leaders from both parties have been meeting with me to find common ground on ethics reform. We've made progress, but the time to talk is over. The time to act is long overdue. Let's not look back next year and have this same conversation. Instead, let's say that this was the session we finally did it - we finally passed ethics reform!
So I ask you once again - and hopefully for the last time: require full disclosure of all lobbyist spending, ban PAC-to-PAC transfers, and finally ban pass-through pork. And let this be the session when we require those who lobby the executive branch to register and file ethics reports. Last year you passed a bill that tried to achieve this needed reform. But it was so fatally flawed that the director of the ethics commission urged me not to sign it. But fix these flaws, send me a bill that works - and I will sign it.
I travel all over the state talking with the people and I have yet to meet anyone who isn't disgusted or embarrassed by the scandal in our community colleges. Finally - thanks to Chancellor Bradley Byrne and our State Board of Education - we are ending the corruption. But we must make sure those abuses never - never -- happen again. So let's ban double dipping in our two-year system, our four-year system, in K through 12 and in every state agency.
A government that is honest, ethical and honorable is fundamental to a better future for Alabama. Without it we can't expect the people to trust that we'll do what's best for them and their children. And they deserve, no, they should demand -- that trust.
And they should trust that we will do everything we can to fulfill our most basic and most important duty - the education of our children. If we fail that - if we fail them - then all else we accomplish will mean very little. No economy, no state will ever reach its full potential if the next generation is not properly prepared for the future. And the best way to prepare them is to start at the beginning.
I ask you: if we expand our top-rated pre-K program to more of Alabama's children, will that help them succeed? Absolutely! Children who participate in high quality pre-K are less likely to repeat a grade or be placed in special education. We know they score higher on achievement tests and are more likely to graduate from high school and go on to college. As adults they get better jobs with higher-paying salaries, and they are also more likely to stay out of prison and off welfare.
In Alabama our pre-K program is already the best in the nation. Just last year Republicans and Democrats joined together and substantially increased pre-K funding. Yet access to pre-K remains too restricted. Currently it reaches only four percent of our four-year-olds. That's simply not enough.
And so my budget includes a 20 million dollar increase to triple the number of children who benefit from voluntary First Class pre-K.
The way the system operates today lower income families can send their children to Head Start. Higher income families can afford private pre-K. But working middle-class families are left out. By providing affordable access, First Class fills the gap that has left our working families with too few options.
First Class pre-K is the smartest investment we could ever make in our children. Nothing we do this session will make more of a difference in their lives and we should have no higher priority than our children's future.
Just as investments in pre-K make sense, so do the investments we make in programs that we know work. Our nationally renowned Reading Initiative. our Math, Science and Technology Initiative, and our ACCESS distance learning program do get results. Clear, unmistakable results. They are proven winners. And in Alabama, if there's one thing we know, we know enough to back winners.
Now some say these programs must be cut; that we can't afford them this year. But if we're serious about creating the best education system in America, then the last thing we should do is hurt those very initiatives that are making Alabama a national leader in education.
And if you pass this balanced budget, we will not only protect these education programs from cuts, we can and we will expand them!
Of course, just as our state has tremendous opportunities this year, we also face some challenges, and we all understand that. Alabama's economy is fundamentally sound and strong, and experts predict we'll weather the national slowdown better than most states. But after years of explosive growth, we will face tighter budgets. That just means we have to prioritize - just like families do when their circumstances change.
We can and we must make choices that enable us to live within our means, and we must do so without shortchanging education, our state's security, and health care.
In addition to increased funding for priority programs, we'll have fiscally responsible - but significant - increases for Medicaid and Corrections. Other departments will see level funding.
The balanced budget I'm presenting to you will require some tough choices, but it protects the critical services people need most and invests more in our children's future. And if you adopt it, we will cut taxes for Alabama families once again.
Our tax cuts are targeted and will provide an economic stimulus - just as Republican and Democrats are doing at the national level. We must help our struggling families. This targeted tax relief will do just that. Our proposal builds on our earlier tax cut and will make the first $15,000 of income for a family of four tax-free. With this plan, 90 percent of Alabama's families will receive a tax cut. Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you: support our families, help our economy, and pass this bill!
There is perhaps no greater obstacle to a flourishing economy than the staggering cost of health care. As we grow our economy, we can increase the number of Alabamians with access to affordable health care by offering targeted tax incentives for small businesses and their workers. Mega projects get the headlines, but, actually, 80 percent of all new jobs will come from small businesses. Yet they are the very companies who are having to cut back on hiring because of rising health care costs.
We cannot allow that to continue. Let me tell you something: when we're given the opportunity to put more people to work, help small businesses grow, and reduce the number of citizens without health care - we better take it. Right now, our economy needs this and our people need this more than ever!
There's a false argument in this state that cutting taxes somehow hurts education. That is simply not true. It is the exact opposite. Cutting taxes stimulates economic growth. A growing economy results in more funding for education, not less.
During an economic slowdown, the worst thing we could possibly do is raise taxes on our people. Now I know there may be some in this chamber who support raising gasoline taxes. Please, at a time when gas prices are so high and people are suffering so much, let me be clear: please do not inflict more pain at the pump on the families of this state.
Instead, I ask you to support two alternatives that will improve transportation. First, pass reforms that create an independent transportation commission. Second, look toward public-private partnerships. Many other states are partnering with the private sector to build highways. What takes government 30 or 40 years to build, these public-private partnerships are able to build in 2 to 5 years. Let's get our roads built more quickly, without the interference of politics and without higher gas taxes.
Today roads are not the only economic stimulus for a state. We are quickly approaching a day when our children will not recall a time before the Internet. But all across this state many communities don't have access to high-speed Internet. And those who don't have it find their opportunities very limited. We can and must accelerate the growth of broadband service, especially to the rural areas of our state. And so tonight I am announcing the Alabama Internet Initiative with a goal of ensuring that every home and every business in our state has high-speed Internet access and will have it within the next four years.
Ladies and gentlemen, I want to thank all of our citizens and our communities for what they did to conserve water during this drought. As a governor, I am truly proud of the way we came together to conserve as much water as we could for the good of the state. This drought continues and we continue to fight against it. But conservation alone will never solve this challenge. Tonight I am announcing that Alabama will conduct a statewide assessment of all of our water resources - above and below ground. This is the first step in creating a statewide water policy. It is believed we have up to 10 times the amount of water underground as we do above ground in our reservoirs. Our ability to tap into these underground reservoirs could solve so many problems, and I can think of no better mission than protecting our state from the ravages of the next drought.
All of you know Alabama, Georgia and Florida are engaged in an ongoing struggle for water rights. I pledge to continue working with the governors of Georgia and Florida and our federal partners on a reasonable solution. Alabamians have always been fair-minded people. We understand that during this historic drought we all have to suffer some pain. But we will never allow anyone to make Alabama endure all the pain.
Now there are some in Georgia who believe the water in those federal reservoirs belongs only to Georgians. However, Georgia didn't build those reservoirs and Georgia didn't pay for them. No. They were built with federal dollars, which means Alabama helped build them, Alabama helped pay for them, and Alabama has as much right to them as Georgia has ever had or ever will have. So let our message be heard loud and clear in Atlanta and in Washington: Alabama will never give up our right to the water in those reservoirs!
I'm glad to know we all agree on that. There's one other thing that we should always agree on, and that's protecting our veterans. America is the land of the free because they were brave. How honored we are that so many of these heroes call Alabama home. So many, in fact, that we must build a new veterans home to care for them. My budget proposal includes the full funding amount needed to match the federal government's commitment to build a new veterans home. As we keep our commitments to children and families during this session, let us never waver, not for one moment, on our commitment to our veterans. No one deserves it more.
There are so many other issues facing our state that we must address, but because of time constraints, we can't tonight. But they are important - like illegal immigration, coastal insurance reform, juvenile justice reform, improving services for those with autism, and strengthening our laws against drunk driving.
During this session we'll have the opportunity to debate them all and, hopefully, to resolve them all. But in confronting these challenges and many others we'll have two choices. We can either rise to the occasion and keep Alabama's momentum going strong or we can ignore the problems and become consumed with partisan bickering. There is no doubt which path those we serve would have us take.
Tonight marks the beginning of a time that will not just be eventful, it will be decisive for us and for our future. And that future will be shaped by our choices and our actions in this session. So let's make sure everything we do and everything that we say reflects the values of the people who sent us here, and let us always be grateful for that privilege.
Thank you, God bless you and God bless Alabama.