North Carolina State of the State Address 2003

Following is the full text of North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley's State of the State speech, delivered March 3, 2003.

Mr. Speaker, Sen. Basnight, Mr. Speaker, Lt. Governor Perdue, Members of the General Assembly, Chief Justice Lake, Members of the Court, Council of State and Cabinet; honored guests and fellow citizens.

Thank you for your warm welcome. Before I start, I would like to acknowledge my family -- my wife Mary and my son Michael -- who are here tonight. I thank them for their love and support.

The shadow of war dominates our thoughts tonight. Brave young men and women are serving abroad, risking their very lives for American freedom. We pray for their safe return and for their families who wait in hope to see their loved ones soon.

To the airmen at Seymour Johnson and Pope Air Force Base, the Marines at Cherry Point and Camp Lejeune, the soldiers at Fort Bragg, the National Guard and Coast Guard who are here tonight -- We are proud of you, and North Carolina is proud to be the most military-friendly state in America.

I last had the privilege of addressing this body two short years ago. Much has changed, but our values have stayed the same.

A startling series of events has challenged us -- deadly acts of terrorism on our own soil, a prolonged national recession and an incredible number of natural disasters.

North Carolina is the only state paying for a flood while we are in a drought and recovering from three ice storms.

But what has stayed the same throughout this adversity is our faith in God, love for our families, respect for our fellow man, and the unshakeable belief that we can, and should, make tomorrow for our children better than today.

Those same values inspired our forefathers four centuries ago to sail rough waters in search of better days. Those same values inspired us to be the only state to keep schools open during the Great Depression and to open the first state university.

Those same values helped man fly the first plane on our shores one century ago this year. Our forefathers were guided by a faith and love that inspired them to make this great state an even better place for their children.

They demonstrated their belief that their children's dreams would not be sacrificed to temporary difficulties caused by factors beyond their control.

Our accomplishments in these trying years demonstrate those same values. We are not only meeting the challenges; we are overcoming them.

For the past two years, all states have been stifled by budget deficits. We made the tough choices to get our finances under control. Other states are working to find billions to balance their books by June.

But in North Carolina, we balanced our budget and protected our priorities at the same time. Other states are cutting back to four-day school weeks, slashing the classroom and releasing prisoners on the streets.

Not in North Carolina. Not on my watch, and not on yours.

Our strategy is different. We reduced the size of government while we expanded educational opportunity.

We have built on our strong educational foundation by adding two essential ingredients of academic success for our children.

Two years ago, we were one of only two Southern states that had no pre-k program. Today, we have More at Four, which will serve 10,000 four-year-olds in 91 counties this year.

We had kindergarten classes packed with 30 students. Today, kindergarten and first grade classes have been reduced to 18, and we are starting on second and third grade this year.

More children are staying in school as our dropout rate has fallen dramatically for the third year in a row.

Test scores are up, attendance is up, and our competitive advantage is up.

Character education is now taught across the state. Children are not only learning how to write, but what is right. Dress codes are working.

Students are looking better and so are their test scores.

Our economic development prospects are also improving. Site Selection magazine praised North Carolina for our new job creation bill. And, for the second year in a row, they named North Carolina number one in business climate.

Our landmark Clean Smokestacks Bill is a national model. We proved you can have cleaner air without higher electric bills.

We tackled the skyrocketing costs of prescription drugs for our seniors. Our new Senior Care program helps them get their medication while they keep their health. People said we could not afford to go forward in this economy, but North Carolina will protect the greatest generation in any economy.

And while Washington still debates this issue, North Carolina passed the strongest Patients Bill of Rights in America.

And we have kept our people safe. Within days of that fateful attack when terrorists struck our nation, North Carolina took action. We did not wait for help from Washington. You gave me the authority to spend up to $30 million for equipment, response, and training.

A national survey recently showed that North Carolina has done more for homeland security than any other state in America. And our North Carolina National Guard has deployed and placed on alert over 6,000 troops who operate everything from Apache attack helicopters to Bradley fighting vehicles.

And we are not just talking about soldiers, troops and battalions -- but North Carolina families -- like Major Mike Hill, an Apache attack pilot. He is the husband of Rhonda Hill and the father of Michael, Brandon and Cameron. Rhonda is with the Guard's family support program. She and her children are here tonight. And Rhonda, all of North Carolina is proud to support you and all of our military families, as well as the troops.

You should be proud of all this good work. But now, we must set our sights on what we can further achieve.

I challenge you, as you make decisions about this year's budget, to set aside thoughts about the problems of the moment and be guided instead by those same values that guided our forefathers.

We have made great strides, but there is more to do. And we will do it together.

The prospect for bipartisan cooperation in both chambers has never been better. For that, I am grateful and excited about the opportunity to work with all of you, regardless of party. People do not know or care who makes progress -- they just care that progress is made.

Our budget is not just a numbers game. It reflects our values. For we know, where a man's treasure is, there also is his heart. Budgets are about educating our children, training our workers and helping the least of our people.

We balanced our budget by cutting more than $1 billion a year and we reduced the state operating budget for the first time in 33 years. You had the courage to face reality and deal with adversity.

We must continue to be disciplined...setting our priorities.

First, protect all children and their rights to a quality education. No cuts to the classroom -- from pre-k through the university. Our economy now demands lifelong learning and we will provide it -- from the high chair to the rocking chair.

This is a North Carolina value, and it will not change.

We will hire new teachers and pay them well -- we have moved from 43rd in the nation to near the top 20 in teacher pay. They are entrusted with our most precious resource, and their compensation should reflect that.

Our Community College professors are 47th in the nation in pay. We must cure that inequity if we are to remain competitive in worker training. We cannot do it all this year, but we will get started.

We will continue to reduce class size so teachers can teach and students can learn. If you give kids lower class size, they will give you higher test scores.

And college will stay affordable. Tuition will not increase this year.

We will make sure at-risk four-year-olds attend pre-k through More at Four.

This program is working. We have kids who show up unable to speak English or recognize colors, shapes, numbers and letters. They leave ready to learn in any school in America.

Some may say that we cannot afford to invest in every child's future in tough budget times. When it comes to protecting our classrooms, we draw the line. We will not sacrifice any child's future in any economy.

But make no mistake; we do need change if we want our success to continue. We need to reform the way we develop our budget.

First, we must recognize that the surplus politics of the 90s are over. State tax collections will not grow in double-digits, and we cannot fund all programs for all people.

As a government, we must focus on our core mission and strive to do it well. The budget I will submit meets that challenge and makes tough choices again.

It cuts $800 million more in spending. It includes money to replenish our Rainy Day Savings Account and for renovations and repairs.

And it has no tax increase.

My budget has no gimmicks or slight-of-hand. It is balanced with the discipline we need to maintain our AAA bond rating. You have made tough choices and the right choices over the past two years. It will not be for naught.

I promise you that the first unbalanced budget or reckless spending bill sent to me will be vetoed the minute it hits my desk.

We cannot just budget from one election to the next. We must have a long-range plan of budget discipline to support our priorities. Our budget must be balanced for years to come.

Here is what I believe we must do:

First, state government must keep working to be more efficient. I am bringing together the best minds of the public and private sector.

And my Cabinet, a great team that has stayed together and stayed focused, has become more efficient. A majority of state agencies have been cut by double digits since I took office.

State employees have answered the call as well. They have done more with less without reward. They will not be overlooked in my budget this year.

Our state's business leaders have stepped forward too. The chair of NCCBI is heading a group creating a plan for long-term efficiency.

Our retired state workers, the real experts on the system, have responded as well. Hundreds have offered their time and advice. Every dollar must go further this year than it did last year.

Second, we must get off the old familiar road and be willing to embrace change.

In that spirit, I have proposed a cap on state spending. The size of state government cannot grow faster than our economy. My new budget will be well below this cap, as it has been for the past three years.

But without a mandatory cap, we could soon abandon budget discipline when the economy recovers. I want to guarantee that the overspending of the last boom never happens again.

Third, we have to eliminate politics as usual. I -- and future governors -- must cut unnecessary spending.

The people deserve a line-item veto to cut the spending we cannot afford and do not need. I do not expect a line-item veto to be popular in these chambers, but I do ask you to let taxpayers vote on this measure.

Fourth, I have met with the new legislators from both sides of the aisle and both chambers.

The freshmen bring a fresh look to legislative life. They want to be home with their families sooner, instead of spending ten months on a budget that can be done in three. I agree.

Let the people vote on session limits for the General Assembly. The Senate has already acted, and I challenge the House to act quickly to do the same. The current system is broken and cannot be defended. As much as I love seeing you, I don't need to see you on Halloween.

Efficiency must start here. Over 8 million citizens depend on your work. Until your budget is done, schools cannot buy books or hire teachers. State employees and local governments cannot balance their checkbooks. The legislature must be on the same calendar as the rest of the state.

And finally, we must get health care costs under control. We cannot allow federal mandates to destroy education and public safety investments.

Let me be clear -- our health care programs help our most vulnerable citizens. We know that we will all be judged by how we treat the least of our people.

But if we fail to control costs, and try to be all things to all people, we will soon be unable to provide anything for anybody. The only viable long-term solution is prevention. It works in the private sector and it can work in government.

Diet, exercise, and checkups prevent health problems.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure -- and a pound of cure is getting too expensive to waste.

It is wrong to ask others to take care of us if we are not willing to take care of ourselves.

Tonight I am proposing that the state increase its wellness benefit by one-third next year. It is the right investment to provide incentives to stay well.

We will help those on Medicaid as well. Under our new ACCESS initiative, health providers will emphasize prevention, and begin enrollment this year. It will cost us less and provide patients more. If we cap spending, are more efficient, and control health care, we go a long way toward solving our budget problems.

But these steps alone are not enough. We cannot just cut or tax our way out of a recession. We must grow our way out. That means getting North Carolina's economy headed back in the right direction.

We all realize that North Carolina is caught in a national recession. Too many Americans cannot find work tonight. Behind every unemployment number is a real person and a hurting family. That is why we have to act now.

We know the national trade policy is exporting North Carolina jobs, especially textiles. Now I, and other Governors, will continue to ask Washington to stop hurting our workers. But the loss of low-skilled jobs is destined to continue.

We need to face this reality, deal with it, and change our economy to provide new jobs.

Now, we are not going to make any excuses. Yes, we have been dealt some bad cards -- but we have to play them, and we can win with them.

One state cannot control the national economy, but there are some things that North Carolina can do for North Carolina. And I suggest we get about the business of doing it.

Tonight, I am proposing an aggressive economic stimulus strategy that will bring new jobs and long-term economic growth to our state.

First, the near-term strategy will create 100,000 new jobs by investing in the state's infrastructure beginning immediately.

I want to accelerate road improvement projects across North Carolina.

Two weeks ago, I announced our plan called "Moving Ahead" so that we can use bonds -- already approved -- to fix thousands of miles of roads and bridges. The cost is already covered.

This plan will create 33,000 new jobs right away. It will not only stimulate the economy, but it will save money and save lives.

Second, we must complete the expansion of the Wilmington Harbor to make the port available for more cargo.

The expansion will increase our share of the import/export market and create 25,000 new jobs statewide, especially in the Piedmont where we depend so heavily on exports.

We must finish this project by December to guarantee these new jobs. It will be in my budget. Industries across North Carolina are waiting for this gateway to international trade -- so we can do what we ought to be doing, export North Carolina products, not North Carolina jobs.

Third, our growing enrollment in education means more buildings at our universities and community colleges. That is why voters approved a $3.1 billion bond.

These facilities will ensure colleges and universities continue to produce the workforce we need to compete.

This year, we will issue bonds for capital projects that will create 43,000 new jobs and make our colleges more competitive.

And fourth, as I visit public schools, I am struck by the number of trailers being used as classrooms.

Far too many of our local governments are financially strapped. It is time for the state to help with school construction again. We need a new revenue source to support a state investment in school facilities.

I propose the state help those counties that are struggling this most -- coping with Medicaid costs, low tax base, and no way to borrow. The emphasis must be on low-wealth counties.

It is the only way to build One North Carolina, and it is the only solution that is right, just and fair.

But where do we go to get the money? We do not have to go anywhere to get the money; we just have to keep the money, here in North Carolina. Now you knew this was coming.

Two years ago, I stood here and told you we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars building new schools in Virginia and Georgia while we are packing our kids in trailers at home.

Tonight, I tell you that we are also paying for schools in South Carolina and soon in Tennessee.

When you are sitting here this year, struggling with the budget, just remember that your colleagues in 39 other states have a revenue source that you do not have. That makes it more difficult for you to improve education and keep taxes down.

Now I heard you loud and clear last year that you do not want a lottery in the budget. But now you hear me -- and a strong majority of our people -- loud and clear. We want to keep North Carolina education money in North Carolina.

Because next year another 100,000 five-year-olds are going to show up at the schoolhouse door. They deserve more than an overcrowded classroom and an overworked underpaid teacher -- and you don't have the money to pay for it.

The people want a separate Education Lottery Fund, just like the Highway Fund. If we keep our education money in North Carolina, we can reduce class size, provide pre-k, and still have $200 million a year for school construction. And create new jobs where they are needed the most.

Now, education and infrastructure are critical to economic growth. But we must be competitive at every level.

Within days after I signed the new job creation bill, business began to call our Commerce Department. The incentive bill helped level the playing field for North Carolina in the competition for jobs.

But we must create an environment that rewards discovery and innovation, and knowledge and technology.

We can do this by reforming our R&D tax credit to attract growth industries. We can do this by capitalizing on our commitment to the Golden LEAF Foundation.

Golden LEAF has an aggressive biotechnology initiative. We are one of the few states poised to be the biotech capital of the world.

This initiative puts us in a great position to lure new business, research, jobs, and investments across the state.

And the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, in partnership with the universities and community colleges -- with a modest state investment -- will send the message in a loud and mighty voice that North Carolina workers plan to lead the world in biotechnology and we will not be denied.

But the most important ingredient to attracting new jobs is a prepared workforce. Those businesses that look here -- who want to invest hundreds of millions in North Carolina -- demand a skilled workforce.

The North Carolina workforce of today, tomorrow, and the next decade will be highly skilled. They know the investments we are making, and they know they are paying off.

Now, contrast that with the majority of other states that are cutting education -- 29 are cutting higher education and 23 are cutting K-12, while we are investing more in education.

Our strategy is simple: In the future, the most skilled workforce in America will be found within the borders of this state. I like North Carolina's position. But we have to stay disciplined and true to our values.

I want you to be proud of what you are doing for the people of North Carolina.

We must make sure that every North Carolinian has a fair chance to succeed, whether their ancestors arrived centuries ago or just last week. And I say if you come here for freedom, if you come here to work hard and raise your family in a land of opportunity, and if you come here to make this a better place than when you arrived -- then I say welcome.

"Todo aquel con buena voluntad esta bienvenido en Carolina del Norte." In other words: All people of good will are welcome in North Carolina. We need your talents, your skills, and your hard work. That is not just good policy. That is a North Carolina value.

We are making the right choices. We are getting the state turned around, but we must finish the job.

I started tonight by remembering our brave soldiers performing their mission abroad. It must be our mission at home to be worthy of their service and their sacrifice. So let us pledge tonight to build the One North Carolina that we all want and they fight to defend.

We can start by fixing our budget, growing our economy, and keeping our promise in education. We cannot rest until the achievement gap is gone, jobs are plentiful, and people are secure.

These are goals worthy of a great state and a great people. They are the people you represent. They have entrusted their hopes, their dreams and ambitions in our hands. We must embrace their aspirations as our own -- embracing and renewing our commitment to the values of our generation. Thank you, and God bless North Carolina.
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