Oklahoma State of the State Address 2004

Oklahoma City, Ok., Feb. 2 Following is the full text of Gov. Brad Henry's (D) 2004 State of the State Address:

Members of the House and Senate, Honorable Justices of the Supreme Court, Lt. Governor Fallin, Speaker Adair, President Pro Tem Hobson, distinguished elected officials, honored guests and my fellow Oklahomans and friends:

2003, in many ways, was a challenging year. Last May, after tornadoes had devastated sections of Central Oklahoma, my wife Kim and I visited with people in Moore who were in the process of putting their lives back together. The destruction was sobering.

But it was not the most astonishing thing we saw. Even as people cleared the debris, we saw smiles on their faces - smiles from people who had lost nearly everything the night before. There they were, sifting through a lifetime of possessions damaged or destroyed, and, amazingly, they were in good spirits. One man even joked about the new skylight in his living room. Like most of the people we met that day, he was already talking about rebuilding.

And rebuild they did.

Resilience is woven deeply into the fabric of Oklahoma. Throw us an obstacle, and we grow stronger. One of our favorite sons, Will Rogers, once remarked that the best way out of difficulty is through it. That, my friends, is what makes us Oklahomans.

And, those Oklahomans who endured loss in 2003 found strength in compassion, faith and quiet resolve. The war in Iraq has brought us more difficulties. Families have been separated. The courageous men and women of our military - thousands of them from our great state - have traveled overseas and risked personal safety - risked their lives - for the sake of our nation and the freedoms we cherish.

Sadly, some have not returned. Eight Oklahomans lost their lives in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and many more have been wounded.

One Lawton native survived a helicopter crash that took the lives of six Fort Sill Soldiers. This brave young man is due to receive the Purple Heart, and he is with us in the gallery today. Please join me in letting Army Specialist Scott Parks know how much we appreciate the courage and valor he and his fellow troops have demonstrated to the world!

Scott Parks is an example of who we are. He is an example of why we Oklahomans are certain to persevere with the fortitude that is the heart and soul of Oklahoma. He's an example of why the state of our state is strong. It is solid. It is determined.

For me, 2003 also posed difficulty and sadness of a personal kind. My family experienced its own heartache when my mother passed away in July. Audre' Henry was a teacher by profession, but her skills in teaching were not limited to the classroom. Mom taught me a lot - about myself, about the challenges of life, about coping in times of crisis - and I miss her every single day.

Like all Oklahomans, I hold dear the value and importance of family. During my time of grieving, I found great comfort in the love and support of my wife, Kim, and our three wonderful daughters - Leah, Laynie and Baylee. The girls are in school today, but let me tell you just a little about Kim.

I am so proud of Kim. She's an educator, a classroom teacher. She loves children, and she's passionate about education - especially early childhood education. Kim just finished a 14-city tour across our state, promoting the value of early childhood education and the "Success by Six" program. And she's right. Early childhood education is so important - especially for our at-risk kids.

Kim, I appreciate your great work. You have been a gracious and graceful and poised First Lady, and you have made Oklahoma proud. Please help me recognize my wonderful wife, The First Lady of the great State of Oklahoma, Kim Henry.

There are, undoubtedly, serious challenges ahead. But our state will no longer be defined by its problems or tragedies. Instead, let us be measured by our many successes and accomplishments. Let us be measured by our strong faith in God, our shared pride in our state, our ingenuity and innovation. Let us be measured by the strength we show in the face of adversity.

And, in Oklahoma, we have strength to spare.

The resilience of Oklahoma was certainly put to the test last year. When I came before you 12 months ago, we faced a budget shortfall of nearly $700 million, the worst funding crisis in the history of our proud state.

But we rose to the occasion. In an early and historic consensus, legislative leaders of both parties and I reached a budget agreement that made the tough choices and, most important, shielded education and health care from what could have been truly disastrous.

We braced ourselves for the fiscal uncertainties of the future. We implemented zero-based budgeting to promote the goal that every tax dollar be well-spent. We reformed the Rainy Day fund to ensure that "emergency" money is used for just that: Emergencies.

Under my budget, we examined and re-examined every agency dollar in the name of effective and efficient government. Even amid these extreme fiscal challenges, we did more for education than simply protect schools from larger cuts.

I am proud of this body for letting voters decide whether to create an education lottery. If approved this November, an education lottery could supplement Oklahoma schools with millions of dollars so our children and teachers will have the best tools, and a college degree is not out of reach to any Oklahoman.

And that's not all. The proposal we passed includes a constitutional amendment to guarantee that education lottery revenues go only toward education, and future legislatures cannot use these proceeds as an excuse to reduce funding for schools.

Last year's legislative session was, in fact, surprisingly successful - an example of what can occur with bipartisan cooperation.

We came together to fund OHLAP, the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program, ensuring that thousands of young Oklahomans can receive college scholarships to pursue higher education and a better life.

We helped our youngest Oklahomans by enacting the Oklahoma Partnership for School Readiness Act, which strengthened early childhood education and increased its access for parents. We started the journey of ensuring that all of our children begin school ready to learn and have the skills they need to succeed.

We became one of the first states in the nation to approve common-sense restrictions on smoking in public places, balancing the rights of smokers with the rights of a public who deserve to live in good health.

We passed medical malpractice tort reform to address skyrocketing malpractice insurance premiums and insure access to doctors. It was a good starting point that ultimately will lower insurance rates while protecting the rights of health care consumers.

We showed foresight in protecting Oklahoma's five military installations from Pentagon budget cuts by creating the Oklahoma Strategic Military Planning Commission.

Thanks to our leadership, we saved more than 100,000 of Oklahoma's children, elderly and disabled citizens from losing health care coverage.

And when our state was in danger of losing our only level-one trauma center, we took action so the facility kept its doors open.

We also launched Oklahoma's EDGE. This economic development initiative brought together the best minds of the private and public sectors and gathered the input of thousands of Oklahomans to chart a roadmap for economic prosperity.

We negotiated new tobacco compacts with tribal nations to level the playing field for all cigarette retailers. These compacts will mean much-needed dollars for state and tribal coffers -- money for critical needs like schools, health care and roads.

There were many economic successes. To name just a few of the exciting developments: Quad/Graphics opened a plant in Oklahoma City; Tracker Marine in Miami, Cardinal Glass in Durant. American Airlines and Boeing expanded operations in Tulsa. And, just last week, Vanguard Car Rental announced it was bringing its corporate headquarters and 700 good jobs to Tulsa.

I am proud of what we've accomplished together. For that, I applaud the tremendous work and integrity of this Legislature. But allow me one other indulgence. I also want to commend my Cabinet officers and staff for their ingenuity, hard work, and dedication. They've really done a great job.

Now, a new year is dawning before us, and with it is a new set of challenges - some daunting, some ripe with opportunity.

There is reason for optimism. The year 2004 looks to be one of transition and success as we emerge from the fog of last year's fiscal crisis.

Today I present you with my proposed executive budget. It is an agenda that combines boldness with caution. Most of all, it is an agenda for our future.

Let us resist the stale ideas and stagnant thinking of the past. Instead, let us commit ourselves to excellence for an Oklahoma of now and tomorrow. Education, health care, tax relief and economic development: these are the key issues we must face this year.

Our commitment begins with education.

The most important component of our educational system is the educator - the teacher. Our state is blessed to have many of the finest in the nation. Oklahoma consistently ranks as one of the top states for teacher training, accountability and National Board certification. It's no wonder, then, that so many neighboring states try to lure them away.

A good teacher can inspire hope, ignite the imagination, and instill a love of learning. Just reflect on your own experiences - think about the people who have had the greatest influence on your life. I bet you'll recall at least one or two special teachers who made a lasting impact.

For me, it was my ninth-grade Honors English teacher - a special woman who taught me as much about believing in myself as she did about dangling participles. And, I am very honored that she is with us in the gallery today. Please help me welcome Mrs. Neata Nelon.

We have many of the best teachers in the nation, but, sadly, they also happen to be among the most underpaid and underappreciated. The average teacher salary in Oklahoma is nearly $4,000 less than the seven-state regional average. Only three other states in the nation have lower teacher pay.

We must provide professional salaries and encourage professional development. We place great responsibility on the shoulders of our teachers, and it is time we act with equal responsibility.

This year, we must embark on a five-year plan to raise our average teacher salary to exceed the regional average.

And I ask you to join me in this commitment: Beginning this year, we will pay 100 percent of our teachers' health insurance costs. This will mean more take-home pay for our hard-working teachers.

We are fortunate that hundreds of our teachers further their skills through National Board Certification every year. Our state boasts the eighth-highest number of National Board-certified teachers in the nation. That level of dedication is why we provide these educators with a $5,000 annual bonus for up to ten years. And under my proposed budget, we will continue to honor that commitment.

The teacher mentoring program has helped more than 45,000 first-year teachers by pairing them with veteran educators to ensure top-quality instructors for our children. My executive budget calls for restoring funding to this tremendous program.

Test scores indicate that many Oklahoma students continue to struggle with math at the middle school level. That's why my budget establishes a summer program to enhance teacher development in math. Teachers who graduate from the program will receive well-earned stipends of $1,000.

We must also prepare our youngest children for the demands of school. We know that students in early childhood education invariably perform better in academics, display stronger reading skills and have fewer disciplinary problems. The pre-kindergarten program in Tulsa, alone, was recognized by a recent Georgetown University study as the premier model for the nation.

It's time to build upon that success. I propose a $2 million appropriation for the Oklahoma Partnership for School Readiness to expand its programs to rural Oklahoma.

Our commitment to public education does not end with 12th grade. Oklahoma must produce more college graduates, both for economic development as well as for the enrichment that comes with higher learning. I propose full funding for the OHLAP program, which ensures college scholarships for eligible students.

Our colleges and universities warrant our full attention. As recommended by the EDGE action plan, my budget provides needed funding to eliminate the sizable backlog of endowed chairs.

Our state boasts a world-renowned CareerTech system, the finest of its kind anywhere. Our commitment to CareerTech is unwavering. But it is also time to flood the financial affairs of CareerTech with the same sunlight that helps ensure accountability for all state agencies. Proper scrutiny is the prescription for healthy government.

We also need a prescription to ensure a healthy Oklahoma. We are all familiar with the health-related problems facing too many Oklahomans - no health insurance, high tobacco use, alcoholism, substance abuse, and obesity.

We cannot cover our eyes and hope these ills will disappear.

I support the EDGE recommendation to raise the cigarette tax to pay for specific health care initiatives. A 52-cent increase would produce $130 million annually to fund vital health programs and reduce the number of teenagers who smoke.

Some among us may not support letting voters decide a cigarette fee hike. I would urge you to listen to your constituents. Let the people decide. It's the health of their children that is at stake.

In fact, an estimated 57,000 teenagers in Oklahoma routinely smoke, and thousands of them will die prematurely. The experience of other states confirms that raising cigarette taxes significantly cuts down on teen smokers.

One in five Oklahomans lacks any health insurance. That has led to a domino effect of disastrous consequences.

Everyone will receive health care, whether they have insurance or not. The question is: who pays for it. The uninsured end up in our hospital emergency rooms because they can't afford to visit the doctor's office - and the cost of care in emergency rooms is 400 percent more expensive. Hospitals and medical providers must pass those costs on to the rest of us -- you and me.

As a result, health care and insurance costs skyrocket. In fact, 30 percent of the increase in health insurance premiums is the result of uninsured health care.

This situation is critical and must be met head-on. Under my budget, $100 million of the cigarette fee revenues will leverage three times that in federal dollars. That, in turn, will make health insurance available for as many as 200,000 currently uninsured Oklahomans.

Another portion of the cigarette tax money should go toward something long overdue - a world-class cancer research center. We all know the grim human toll of cancer. I lost my father to lung cancer. Senator Debbie Leftwich recently lost her husband to cancer. He was our friend and former colleague, Senator Keith Leftwich.

Nearly everyone in this room has lost a friend or relative to this horrible disease. It's time to make the dream of a cancer research center a reality in Oklahoma.

Ours is the only state in the nation in which Medicaid does not provide screenings for breast cancer and cervical cancer. This is in spite of the fact that each year nearly 2,500 women in our state are diagnosed with breast cancer, and 200 more are diagnosed with cervical cancer. Our executive budget provides Medicaid funding for screening and treatment that literally means the difference between life and death.

And matters of life and death are exactly why Oklahoma cannot afford to lose its only level-one trauma center. Our budget includes funding mechanisms to ensure that our trauma center remains viable. Simply put, this will save lives.

Healthy minds and bodies also grow from a healthy economy. The business climate in Oklahoma is strong, but we can make it stronger. We must build upon our economic accomplishments for a future of even greater rewards.

The citizens of Oklahoma deserve meaningful and genuine tort reform, and we will provide it.

We will incorporate the best provisions of tort reforms recently enacted by our neighbor to the south - but we will not limit ourselves to a carbon copy of the Texas plan. Once again, we will beat Texas.

In addition to adopting the best of the Texas reforms, we must act to eliminate frivolous lawsuits in Oklahoma. We should also finish last year's work and enact further reforms to protect our doctors and health providers from unreasonable increases in malpractice premiums.

We should appoint judges in our metropolitan areas and cautiously guard the independence of the judiciary. We should consider business courts to hear technical commercial cases. And we should stop the use of "junk science" in our courtrooms.

We must protect the rights of our citizens to access the courts and hold wrongdoers accountable before a jury of their peers. We must respect the integrity of our jury system - which is still the best in the world. But, we must also do all we can to prevent frivolous lawsuits, abuse, and needless waste of resources.

But this is an election year; and, believe it or not, some in this very chamber might be tempted to politicize this issue rather than enact meaningful and genuine change. I urge you to resist that temptation. Oklahomans deserve better.

Our state also deserves to capitalize on its bold pioneering spirit. Oklahomans have long distinguished themselves as forward-thinking innovators. Indeed, the spirit of the Land Run is alive and well in our scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs - the pioneers of today.

That quest for improvement and invention must be afforded room to grow. Let's transform Oklahoma into a hub of research and development.

The EDGE action plan calls for a $1 billion endowment to fuel private and public research and development. I call on you to join me in working toward that goal. This session, let's determine how to structure this visionary proposal.

Our tax system should also be designed to create good jobs and stimulate investment in our state. I propose eliminating the capital gains tax on all Oklahoma property held for five years or longer. By doing so, we'll do more than cut taxes. We will take a tremendous leap forward in encouraging investment in our state. Let's tell businesses it is time to bring your investments and jobs to Oklahoma.

A fluctuating income tax doesn't help taxpayers or economic development, but that's exactly what we currently have. Let's remove the uncertainty by permanently lowering the top income tax rate to 6.65 percent.

It's also time to provide tax relief for our seniors. I propose we raise the income tax exemption on all retirement benefits and make Oklahoma a more retirement-friendly state.

And we must help our working mothers with child care so they can earn a living for their families. My executive budget calls for investing an additional $15 million in the "Reaching for the Stars" program to help our economy and our families.

Our state workers are the backbone of state government. It is their skill and dedication that keeps Oklahoma on track. But, like our teachers, they are underappreciated and deserve better pay. Let us do what we can this year to help the unsung heroes of Oklahoma, our hard-working state employees.

I also call on you to help preserve one of the most historic and important industries in Oklahoma. Our horse industry has a proud tradition, providing more than 50,000 jobs in our state and an economic impact of more than $1 billion. But the industry is in serious jeopardy.

We have an opportunity to save our horse industry. We must provide parity and allow our racetracks to have electronic gaming machines - just like those in the 82 tribal casinos in operation across our state. Let's save our horse industry before it's too late!

But we can accomplish even more. This proposal will finally enable our state to regulate the growing number of tribal casinos while sharing in the revenues they generate. And that money will make a real difference for education.

Other challenges remain, of course. We find ourselves shackled by our dependence on prisons. We must build upon options such as drug courts, mental health courts and community sentencing for nonviolent offenders. Lock up the violent and dangerous, but find alternative ways to punish and correct the rest.

Our state continues to suffer the scourge of methamphetamine. The day after Christmas, we mourned the death of Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Nikky Green, brutally shot and killed after stopping a car suspected of being a mobile meth lab.

Our brave men and women in law enforcement - who put their lives on the line every day - dismantled nearly 1,300 meth labs last year - and, unbelievably, children were present in a large percentage of them. In Tulsa County alone last year, nearly 90 percent of the children found in meth houses actually tested positive for methamphetamine.

I urge you to pass a measure this year tightening restrictions on tablet sales of pseudoephedrine, the chief ingredient in meth. We must protect our citizens - we must protect our children!

For more than 20 years, the Tar Creek region has languished on the EPA's Superfund list as the worst toxic site in the nation. Its legacy is an environmental horror of lead exposure, long-abandoned mine shafts, polluted waters and contaminated chat piles.

On the national stage, there is real momentum for a remedy to the Tar Creek crisis. But momentum is of little solace for a generation of children in imminent danger of serious health problems as a result of lead exposure.

We must act to help the children. Families in Tar Creek, with children ages 6 and under, deserve our help to relocate if they so choose. Science tells us this is the most at-risk population. The State of Oklahoma can and should provide relocation assistance to these eligible families. It is high time that we confront the reality of Tar Creek.

Our challenges are formidable, but not insurmountable. Oklahoma deserves our best efforts, and our best efforts are what we will deliver.

Together, let's develop a world-class educational system for our young people, so they can lead rich, fulfilling lives.

Let's ensure adequate and affordable health care for Oklahoma families.

Let's give business owners and workers the tools they need for economic prosperity.

I urge my friends in both parties to embrace the spirit of bipartisanship. The people of Oklahoma expect us to conduct the people's business and find real solutions.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with civic groups from Enid to Ardmore, Beaver to Idabel. And what I heard, time and time again, was that Oklahomans want bipartisanship. They want us to work together. To put aside partisan posturing. To find meaningful, genuine solutions. To do what's right and what's best for Oklahoma. And, that requires us to place Oklahoma's future above all else.

We will confront the future with confidence and look to tomorrow with courage. The opportunities before us are as vast and brilliant as our wide-open Oklahoma skies.

God bless you, God bless America, and God bless Oklahoma.
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