Louisiana State of the State Address 2004

Baton Rouge, La., Mar. 29 - Following is the full text of Gov. Kathleen Blanco's (D) 2004 state of the state address:

Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, my fellow statewide elected officials, members of the House and Senate, dignitaries, honored guests, members of my family, and citizens of Louisiana. Thank you for your welcome.

We gather with high hopes and grand expectations as we begin the first Regular Legislative Session of our respective terms.

For each of us, this session presents an opportunity for a new beginning and a renewed commitment to the responsibilities entrusted to us by our constituents. For me, this session presents the opportunity to move our state in a new direction.

It's our chance to show the world that in Louisiana there is a new way of doing business.

It was less than a month ago that we gathered here in this chamber to begin a special session of this Legislature. We did the hard work. We addressed my economic incentive package, designed to strengthen our economy, shore up our budget, and protect funding for health care and education.

I want to commend you for shouldering the responsibility of renewing the so-called temporary taxes. We have managed a 500 million dollar budget shortfall with strict discipline. In these very tight budget times we could not have absorbed the loss of another 200 million dollars.

This would have dealt a devastating and destabilizing blow to our schools and hospitals. Working together, we avoided considerable suffering and of that we can rightfully be proud.

During the recent special session, you also sent a strong message that Louisiana is open for business. By enacting legislation to phase out the corporate franchise tax on debt and the sales taxes on manufacturing machinery and equipment, you have set the stage for a stronger economy. And you have signaled the rest of the country that Louisiana is more open than ever to new and existing business.

At a time when many states have been forced to raise taxes, I am proud to say that we have enacted legislation that will reduce taxes on business by one billion dollars over seven years. That is no small accomplishment. And I ask all visitors here to join me in applauding you.

Your courage and foresight send a strong signal -- to Wall Street and the rest of the nation -- that important changes have taken place in your Capital city. The hardest legislative work is behind us.

Today, we begin the work of giving the people of this state a professional and well-managed government -- one that that is responsible, responsive, and is operated like a business. Our job is not to give the people more government, but to give them better, more honest government.

We believe that government should live within its means -- that when times are tough, our government should tighten its belt, just like the average family. We are living within our means and not raising new taxes.

And we'll work to serve the people by working harder and more creatively on their behalf.

We believe that holding elected office is a sacred trust. And so we will hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards.

We treasure our children. And so we'll protect them from harm, work to set them on the right paths, and help strengthen their families. And when they go astray, we will not abandon them, but do all we can to restore and rehabilitate them.

We believe that educating our children is the cornerstone of a civilized society. And so we will provide the best for our children from early childhood through college.

We believe that every person has a right to affordable, good-quality health care. And so we'll work to reinvent our health care system so that it serves everyone well.

We believe that our state's bayous, rivers and streams, our woodlands and prairies, and our coastal wetlands, are national treasures. And so we will protect and preserve them.

We also believe that every person who wants to work should be able to find a decent job.

And so we will build a stronger economy that creates good-paying jobs, rewards initiative, and encourages entrepreneurship.

These principles will guide my administration and they will characterize much of what we hope to accomplish in the coming years as we work together in a spirit of compromise and cooperation.

By nature, I'm an optimistic person. And I'm hopeful about the capacity of our people to confront with energy and skill the difficulties that face us. We are a state filled with talented, industrious citizens. As I said in my inaugural address, I believe we are a people destined for greatness.

We are not in last place on all the lists of positive indicators. Indeed, we have much to be proud of.

The U.S. Census Bureau ranks our state's manufacturing workers number one in the nation in productivity. Entrepreneur magazine lists several of our cities -- including Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Shreveport as the best mid-sized cities for entrepreneurs.

Forbes magazine also says these three cities rank in the Top 25 as places with the lowest costs of doing business. According to Education Week, Louisiana ranks first in the nation in educational accountability and standards, and fifth in improving teacher quality.

The Southern Regional Education Board ranks us second in the South in increasing teacher pay since 1997.

We are a giving people and that is why the Catalogue for Philanthropy ranks us number seven on last year's "Generosity Index." The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education says that our colleges and universities are among the most affordable in the country. The Tax Foundation says we have the 10th lowest overall tax burden in the country.

And, according to every sports-loving fan, we have the best college football in the country.

But while celebrating our success, we can't shy away from acknowledging where we must devote more effort to improving our state and lifting up our people.

I wish that it were possible for me to stand before you this day and declare that the state of our state is completely good.

But great challenges remain.

We have the second highest poverty rate in the nation, with one-fourth of our children living in poverty.

Thirty-five percent of our children live with parents who do not have a full-time, year-round job. We suffer from one of the highest juvenile incarceration rates in the nation.

Louisiana ranks 50th, the worst in the nation, in overall health indicators. Lack of access to routine and preventive health care is a major contributor to our state's poor health status. We also rank last in terms of access to primary health care.

As you can see, we have our work cut out for us. And our constituents are demanding that we address these problems. They've sent us here as agents of change.

In their name and on their behalf, I declare that in these and other areas we can no longer afford to be last.

The people will judge us, and properly so, for what we accomplish on their behalf and in their name during the next four years.

Can we change Louisiana overnight? Of course not. But we can begin here the process of transforming our state into what we all want: a place where every child is treasured, where every person's dignity is honored, and where every family is a peaceful refuge.

Martin Luther King once said that "everything that is done in the world is done by hope." And so I make no apologizes for hoping and praying for this kind of state.

In the coming session of this Legislature I will ask you to act on a number of bills that my administration has proposed to reform our government and make it more effective and responsive to the people we serve.

One of the biggest challenges is creating new jobs for our people.

And I know you'll agree when I say that the motivating factor in creating a strong economy is what it means to individual families who love Louisiana and want to stay here and raise their children.

Building a new economy is everybody's business. And for that reason I ask each of you legislators and citizens -- to serve as our state's recruitment and retention ambassadors, helping us expand our economy and attract new jobs.

I talk weekly with CEOs to inquire about their companies and I encourage them to come to Louisiana, to expand or remain in our state. I hope you will do the same in your communities.

Let's not take our existing businesses for granted.

As we continue to work to make our state friendlier to business, we must also aggressively sell the message of Louisiana as a great place to do business.

I want you to know that we are beginning that effort this week by mailing out more than thirty thousand letters to businesses in the state and to thousands of companies that do not yet have a presence in Louisiana.

I am sending letters that say what we have accomplished in the last session. I want them to know that the state is changing the tone for Louisiana's business community, and that we are committed to a long-term, business friendly approach.

I hope that my next letter to business leaders will talk about how Louisiana is improving its image by strengthening our ethics laws.

Our political past hurts us. One of the most discouraging things I hear from out-of-state CEOs is their negative perception of Louisiana. Many of these CEOs have avoided our state for years. They believe that to do business in Louisiana requires them to deal under the table.

We must abolish the notion that in order to set up business here they will be held up.

In the coming session, I ask you to work with me to change our negative image. I ask you to approve several ethics bills that will help us send a strong message about the integrity of Louisiana's Legislature and its Governor.

The first set of bills would prohibit the governor or any member of the Legislature from accepting a campaign contribution or a loan to a campaign fund during a regular legislative session.

We will ask for legislation to require financial disclosure for all statewide elected officials and members of the Legislature so that the public can have greater confidence about our independence from special interests. An overwhelming majority of states have more comprehensive financial disclosure requirements for their legislatures.

It's time to add ourselves to that list.

We will propose legislation requiring lobbyist disclosure for expenditures involving the governor, my staff and any member of the executive branch. This provision now applies to the Legislature.

Another bill is aimed at shedding more light on expenditures made by outside groups or individuals who attempt to influence our elections. Under this proposed law, in the twenty days before an election those making certain independent expenditures would be required to report that spending within 48 hours, just as candidates must do.

The final ethics bill I will offer is aimed at stopping individuals from making secret contributions to candidates by giving money in someone else's name.

We will work relentlessly to redefine a positive image for Louisiana and create more jobs.

In the past, we've been disadvantaged by another problem. We've not had a sufficient Rapid Response Fund to compete with other states in recruiting new business.

Therefore, I ask you to support my proposed budget allotment for $10 million, positioning us to respond rapidly to job-creating opportunities.

Providing this amount is essential. Texas has 295 million dollars in its fund. Mississippi and Arkansas also have these dedicated funds. We can't afford to sit on the sidelines any longer. We've got to get in the game.

Many rural areas do not have high-speed Internet access. Technology plays a key role in business growth and success. We must develop ways to bring broadband to underserved rural areas.

Therefore, we're creating the Louisiana Broadband Council to develop and implement a strategy to increase high-speed Internet usage and availability to rural Louisiana.

Ironically, as we work to keep jobs in Louisiana, I have learned that we are also contracting with certain companies who send professional service jobs overseas. It just makes sense that we try to keep our jobs here in the United States. I am proposing legislation that will limit the practice of state agencies contracting with companies that out-source our jobs to foreign countries.

Today I reach out to our parish tax assessors. This is a property reassessment year. I've asked the Tax Commission to work with our assessors to help build confidence in a fair and equitable property tax system.

I know many of our assessors have worked to overcome the notion that special people get special consideration.

To help our assessors restore confidence to the system, I have proposed legislation that will create a statewide ad valorem tax assessment database for publication on the Internet. Making this information more readily available will increase public confidence in our tax assessment system.

Another important aspect of economic development is what we do to enhance our infrastructure our roads, bridges, and our ports. We are developing a comprehensive federal legislative strategy to work with Louisiana's congressional delegation on securing funds to complete I-49 and enhance our state's ports.

And we are studying innovative ways of financing road and bridge construction.

A well-trained, well-educated workforce is the foundation of an economy that is creating new jobs. In the words of Vision 2020, we need an education system that "prepares all Louisiana citizens for a competitive work environment."

Currently, however, our job training efforts are not as focused and effective as they can be. Research shows that 65 percent of the jobs of the future will require something less than a college degree but more than a high school diploma. For that reason, we will develop and implement a comprehensive, integrated workforce development plan for the state.

I am proposing legislation that recognizes the need to give middle and high school students better information about what jobs will be in great demand when they graduate.

We need to give Occupational Forecasting information from the Workforce Commission to middle and high school students so they know what jobs will be available in Louisiana and which colleges or universities offer preparation that leads to careers in those high-demand areas.

There are other concrete ways that we can strengthen Louisiana's work force: One move in that direction is to ensure that our citizens receive the necessary tools to gain meaningful employment.

Currently, citizens preparing for the labor market and receiving cash assistance are restricted by a 24-month time limit. We have a problem.

Recent studies show that 40 percent of these citizens who are receiving cash assistance and who are in training programs need more education and training than the 24 months that Louisiana currently allows. The system drops them before they have the job skills they need.

We are proposing to allow citizens who meet their obligations to earn additional educational and training, up to the federal limit of 60 months. We want them to become productive, tax-paying citizens, but some need a little more time. We will help those who are trying to help themselves.

In order to earn more our workers must learn more. Therefore I am proposing a program for Lifelong Learning Loans. These loans will have special low-interest rates, long maturities, and deferred payments that workers can use for training and certification programs in areas where we most need skilled workers.

The Technical and Community College System will be asked to better meet the needs of our work force and our businesses. Therefore, my budget includes 5 million additional dollars for these colleges to meet growth expectations.

As you know, my budget provides $49 million in continued funding to maintain pre-k services for at-risk four-year-olds.

I am proud of that commitment, but I realize that is not enough. Therefore, we'll support efforts of the Department of Education to seek federal funds to expand the current Pre-K program toward our goal of universal access. And we'll continue to focus on strong accountability measures for our Pre-K partners.

My budget includes 52 million dollars in continued funding for the education Accountability Program. This includes 1.3 million dollars in increased funding for High Stakes Remediation and Testing. We must continue our number-one ranked school accountability efforts. They focus on student achievement and the belief that every child can learn.

We further strengthen our accountability program by developing a demonstration project that puts highly qualified and effective teachers into low-performing schools. We will begin immediately to develop effective incentive plans to attract those teachers.

Investing in technology for our universities will allow us to become one of the select members of the National LambdaRail initiative.

The LambdaRail will link the country's most powerful computers into an advanced network for research and technology development. We support the commitment by the higher education community of 5 million dollars over 5 years to help route this network through our state, instead of bypassing Louisiana.

We will work with our higher education institutions to develop an in-state network that will take advantage of this LambdaRail access.

Through these efforts, we can distinguish Louisiana as a major player in high-performance computing and network technology and secure tremendous economic development gains in the future.

I want to thank each one of you who participated in our very successful health care summit. Last month, more than one thousand people gathered in New Orleans to share ideas and to call for improvements to our health care system. Rapidly escalating costs are devouring the resources of our government and our families.

Our citizens are demanding access to good-quality, affordable basic health care. And we must deliver.

I know that like me, you want a health care system that puts people first.

As a first step, I have directed the Department of Health and Hospitals to begin focusing on ways to get better outcomes for the health care dollars we spend.

We will begin identifying high-cost patients and services and, using the data we collect, we will focus our resources to improve quality and decrease costs.

We will continue our push to increase the number of federally qualified health care centers. These health care centers are private, non-profit or public clinics that provide preventive care to underserved areas of our state. And they provide lower-cost alternatives to hospital and emergency room care.

Over two thousand people participated in our regional pre-summit meetings. These people expressed a strong desire to be a part of the solution. And so, we will formalize our regional models to maintain local input as we work toward reforming our health care system.

I am also directing the Department of Health and Hospitals to prepare information on health indicators, by region. And I will ask leaders in those regions to use this data to help formulate local priorities.

We will be working on proposals for fundamental, long-term, and systemic reform of our state's health care system. I expect that during next year's Regular Session you will be asked to act on these health care reform measures.

In the meantime, we must also guarantee that each dollar in our budget works harder for us. We need to get the best prices possible for prescription drugs. That is why I am asking the Commissioner of Administration and the Secretary of Department of Health and Hospitals to explore the feasibility of using the combined buying power of four programs: the Medicaid program, the state employee health insurance program, and our prison and state hospital systems. We must make an effort to drive down the cost of prescription drugs.

I feel obligated to call to your attention to another potentially serious problem we have inherited. In this current fiscal year and next fiscal year we have financed our a significant share of our health care budget with inter-governmental transfers.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services is holding up approval of our application and has been holding it up for months. If they don't soon take positive action on our request, the state could face some extraordinary difficulties.

If we must compromise on using these inter-governmental transfers, we could face an estimated 50 million dollar loss of state matching funds and a 180 million dollar total Medicaid shortfall in this current fiscal year. The impact on next fiscal year could be even larger.

Using inter-governmental transfers to attract federal dollars is legal. This practice has traditionally been used by many states and now the federal government is trying to stop it.

We continue to negotiate daily and work with our congressional delegation toward a resolution of this problem. I've been personally involved in this matter and may have to go to Washington, D.C. in pursuit of a solution.

I am also deeply troubled about reports concerning our state's retirement systems. We need to address the problems with our experience accounts to give some relief to state and local government.

But with that relief must come reform and oversight. We also must look at our investment strategies. It may be possible to increase the amount of investment work done in state by Louisianans.

And I want to encourage the Legislature and the retirement systems to work with me to see if we can bring some of those investment jobs home to our state.

The well-being of our children is also a concern we all share. For two years, efforts have been underway to improve Juvenile Justice in our state. You will be pleased to know that we are making significant progress.

I have adopted the unanimous recommendation of the Juvenile Justice Implementation Commission to separate youth services from adult corrections.

I ask you to write into law the firewall we have established. I also ask you to adopt our regional community-based approach to serving the young people in this system. More than seven million dollars to establish community-based programs is included in my budget.

We must also do a better job of getting the federal funds we need and deserve to meet the critical needs of our citizens. That includes money for health care, education, roads and bridges, and restoring and protecting our coastal wetlands.

Speaking of our wetlands, I am hopeful that Louisiana is close to an agreement with the White House that would result in administration support for some two billion dollars in the 2004 Water Resources Development Act. We need to stop the annual loss of 25 to 35 square miles of our wetlands.

As I said in a letter to the New York Times after I returned from Iraq, our federal government has funded the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay and Florida's Everglades, and now we're funding wetlands restoration in Iraq.

These are all noble efforts. But it's time for Washington to address an environmental and economic crisis more significant than any of these the loss of "America's Wetland" in coastal Louisiana.

In this time of economic challenge, we will give the people a more efficient government one that increases the value of government services, not our taxes.

I have directed my Cabinet secretaries to develop personal and departmental goals for each of their departments -- goals for performance, cost savings, and customer service that will be posted on their websites for all of us to view and measure their progress.

I've also instructed the departments of Natural Resources, Wildlife and Fisheries, and Environmental Quality to eliminate the redundancies in their permitting processes again to reduce customer frustration.

All departments of state government are now focused on building Louisiana's economy.

As the nation prepares for another round of base closures in 2005, we will strengthen our Military Advisory Board in order to advocate strongly and effectively that our bases must remain open. These facilities have effectively trained hundreds of thousands of men and women who have served our nation honorably and courageously. Our state must fight to keep our bases open. I ask you to join with me in this important effort.

My remarks to you today would not be complete if I did not offer words of gratitude to the men and women of Louisiana who are putting their lives at risk as we speak -- serving our nation in Iraq, Afghanistan and in other danger spots around the world. We owe so much to the bravery and dedication of our soldiers.

As you know, in February, I was privileged to spend a few days with our troops in Baghdad. To the families and friends of these men and women -- I hope it gives you comfort to know that the soldiers I met in Iraq are among the finest and best prepared that our nation ever produced.

Soon, the 256th Infantry Brigade of the Louisiana National Guard that's thirty-eight-hundred of our Louisiana soldiers will leave for 18 months of active duty.

Like you, I am eager for the day when Iraq and Afghanistan are peaceful and our sons and daughters can return to us. In the meantime, let us remember them in our prayers.

May God bless us and guide us in our work in the coming months. May He bless and protect our troops. And may He bless the great state of Louisiana.

Thank you very much.
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