Oklahoma State of the State Address 2003

Following is the full text of Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry's State of the State Address, delivered Feb. 3, 2003:

Members of the Senate and House, Honorable Justices of the Supreme Court, Lt. Gov. Fallin, distinguished elected officials, honored guests, and my fellow Oklahomans and friends:

Two days ago, our nation suffered a terrible tragedy with the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia. Indeed, the tragedy directly touched Oklahoma, where friends and family members of two of the lost astronauts live. Our flags fly at half staff in their honor, our hearts are heavy for their loss, but our spirits are fortified by their bravery and selflessness. Please join me in a moment of silent tribute.

A few weeks ago, on the South steps of the Capitol, I asked all Oklahomans to reflect on our strengths and to seek opportunities in the current budget crisis. Let's be reminded of our strengths as we roll up our sleeves and get to work together. This is a great state, and we must be proud and thankful for so much. But, all too often, we have accentuated the negative. We must put aside our differences and renew our faith that we can do great things.

I take comfort in my family: My wife, Kim, who is my partner in life and my three daughters, Leah, Laynie and Baylee, who are in school today. They give my life meaning. Without their love and support, I could not be here. Kim, would you please stand and be recognized?

I also want to note that I take comfort in the fact that I address you from the same well where great leaders once stood - like David Boren, Henry Bellmon and George Nigh. They, and others like them, inspired us in times of great challenge. Today, they inspire us anew.

Other notable figures who sat in this chamber also come to mind: my close friend, Representative Hannah Atkins, one of the great leaders in the battle for civil rights in Oklahoma; Speaker Bill Willis of Kiowa descent whose decision it was to fund the historic murals that grace our Capitol's Dome; and Representative and later Senator Helen Cole, my dear friend who always stood for what was right and good, no matter the political consequences. I'll always remember beginning each session day with a hug from Helen Cole. Now, that's bipartisanship. In charting our course to the future, we are mindful of our path from the past.

Although the march of history may give us pause, the task that lies before us must not. That task is to pass and sign into law a balanced budget that not only reflects our values but reins in the largest revenue shortfall in our history. That task is to make our government more efficient, to cut where we can, and to save what we cannot afford to cut. We must tighten our belts just as Oklahoma families have had to do in these times.

Fellow Oklahomans, I say this today, even in the face of the current budget crisis: The state of our state is strong!

We are strong because our foundation is great. We are strong because we have the resolve to weather this crisis together. We are strong because, today, we pledge to put aside partisanship and politics as usual. I repeat today what I consider to be the watchwords of this administration: Regardless of party, we must be Oklahomans first!

But make no mistake. The crisis is real. Our will has outgrown our wallet.

Let me put the current situation into perspective. In the mid-1980s at the height of the oil bust we faced similar problems - a budget shortfall of $280 million. As difficult as it may seem to believe, today's situation is more than twice as dire a budget shortfall of $600 million.

If we continue down the current course, we place our state at serious risk. Today's bills will be paid by our children's futures. Let's pledge to avoid that at all costs. Let's pledge today to balance our budget without putting Oklahoma's excellence at risk.

To those who say we cannot accomplish this, I would remind them I've heard that before. Throughout my campaign for Governor, I was constantly told what I could not do. You know, I'm not even supposed to be standing here today. But, I am.

Now, the naysayers contend, that because of the budget crisis, we will never have the best education system. They say we'll never have access to quality, affordable health care. They say we'll never have a thriving environment for economic development.

But, I say, "They're wrong." I say we can do it together. We have the capacity. We have the resources. The only thing holding us back is ourselves.

To begin, we have to realize that we must continue funding certain services. There is no option. To fund these essential services, we have had to make difficult choices in other areas.

Under the skillful leadership of my State Director of Finance, Scott Meacham, our administration has already begun to address our budget problems.

During the brief period between the election and now, we have begun to implement zero-based budgeting. We are asking every agency to think not in terms of percentage decreases or increases, but in terms of justifying every dollar requested. Each agency should start with a zero appropriation instead of merely requesting a percentage increase or decrease from prior appropriations. We favor long-term solutions over short-term band-aids.

So far, our budget cutting has allowed us to present to you a budget that has freed more than $220 million of spending from agency budgets to be used for more critical services. In addition to finding money that could be better used elsewhere, we've proposed steps to increase revenue collection efficiency.

We have also reduced the size of Government by consolidating departments and combining agencies and positions. To lead by example, I have proposed that the total cuts to the Governor's Office budget be 11.5%. I also want to commend the members of the Legislative leadership, who have offered to cut a total of 10% from their budgets. We are asking each agency to make significant cuts in their budgets as well.

Finally, I plan to support new restrictions on the use of rainy day funds. Part of our problem can be traced to the lack of adequate protection of rainy day funds. We need to enact new protective measures so the next time we find ourselves in this situation, we will be better prepared. We must use the term "rainy day" with care.

I call on each of you in this Chamber today to help me with all these efforts zero-based budgeting, streamlining government, eliminating waste, and investing in education - to find additional savings for the people of Oklahoma, and to reject raiding our emergency savings account for day-to-day operations.

You know, if I learned one thing in my time in the Legislature, it was this: Government is no place for reticence. If you want to make a difference, you must be willing to take a stand. You must be willing to tackle the difficult issues. You must be willing to step on toes. And you will never please everyone.

I don't want to look back in 10 or 20 years and say: "Sure, I got elected. I never made anyone mad ... But, I also never accomplished great things." I do not want to be that kind of Governor, and I will not be that kind of Governor. We will step on toes, if we must, but we will move this state forward.

We will start with education an essential state service. I have pledged to protect education to the greatest extent possible. Education cannot be whittled away. It cannot be diminished. The future of Oklahoma must be built on a foundation that values education. We need to know our children and grandchildren will have the full benefit of a quality education. We should not steal from our future to pay today's bills.

Most unfortunately, many simply do not recognize how well our schools have done. We lead the 14-state southern region in ACT scores, and we rank ninth in the number of national Board-certified teachers. The reason we excel is the commitment of our fine teachers.

Just last week, we learned that 58 students across this great nation scored a perfect score on the ACT exam. And you know what? Five were from Oklahoma. We are proud of this accomplishment, and I want to recognize these gifted students today: Chris Franklin of Piedmont High School Austin McDonald of Owasso and the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics Wade DeJager of Perry High School Mae Lindsey of Ada and the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics Amanda Schwada of Edmond Memorial High School Would these gifted students please stand to be recognized?

This year, because of the massive shortfall we face and the way we fund education, this critical enterprise stands to take a bigger cut than any other function of government. However, we have proposed in our budget, and my administration will work to increase our investment in education by approximately $110 million. We will cut administrative costs, but, above all, we will protect the classroom. Improving education is not only a matter of principle, but one of perception. Let's make public schools our top priority. Let's take action early on education!

At the same time, let's deregulate and depoliticize the process of setting tuition at our colleges and universities. Let's join 40 other states across this nation that allow their institutions of higher learning to establish reasonable rates of tuition. I support this legislation, which has bipartisan backing, proposed by Rep. Bill Nations and Sen. Mike Morgan.

We should ensure that our colleges and universities remain among the most affordable in the country for our students by requiring institutions to stay below a benchmark figure. For example, OU and OSU could be required to remain below the Big Twelve average for tuition and fees. Regional institutions should not exceed the average of their peers in other states.

In addition, need-based tuition waivers and scholarships must be adequately funded to keep pace with tuition. And, we must keep faith with our students and parents by not cutting state appropriations as a means to offset tuition revenues.

In order for all our children to have an opportunity to seek a higher education, we must make systemic changes in our educational system and find ways to identify at-risk children early in their academic careers - before they fall behind or get into trouble. All Oklahoma families should have access to child care and early education programs in their communities. By expanding and strengthening early childhood programs, we can achieve our state goal for the public schools of having 90% or more of third-grade students reading at their grade level by 2007. We need to pass the Oklahoma Partnership for School Readiness Act, which would encourage public-private partnerships and help us make these crucial early investments in our children's later success.

Our investments in education will yield double dividends. First, our students will benefit from enhanced learning opportunities, making their future brighter. Second, education is the wellspring of economic development. The investment in education will produce a better-educated workforce one prepared for the demands of today's new companies that rely on intellectual capital to turn ideas into profits. And, we must invest in our world-class career tech system, especially the Training for Industry Program, which helps prepare today's labor force for tomorrow's jobs.

Today, I challenge Oklahoma higher education to harness the energies of the exceptional faculty and students in our colleges and universities as a force for economic development. Our institutions of higher learning can provide leadership in coordinating research and technology transfer efforts in support of both new and existing business and industry. Success in the global economy will go to those who work not only harder, but also smarter.

As we look to invest in education, we must also demand appropriate reform and accountability. Local school boards and governing regents should help us identify and implement educational efficiencies. These public entities know their institutions best, and we urge them to think creatively and act boldly to effect new economies while maintaining the highest standards of excellence.

We must seek local business partners for help and use public school foundations to nurture academic accomplishment. Some schools have already provided shining examples of innovative thinking. The "Teacher for a Day" program in Talequah, for example, encourages area businesses to give employees a paid day off to volunteer as substitute teachers in the schools. Not only does the district save money, but the volunteers serve as new role models for students.

Many of you in this Chamber, Democrats and Republicans alike, have advanced proposals to reduce costs and increase efficiencies in education. I applaud your initiatives and promise to join with you to seek ways to streamline administration, stretch purchasing power, create cooperative efforts, encourage innovative instruction, and build on successful experiences throughout the state.

Getting the best bang for our educational dollar is not a partisan issue. It demands the best efforts from all of us working together.

Even if we accomplish these ambitious goals, we must do more. We cannot economize our way to excellence. We need revenue revenue dedicated solely to education. We need an education lottery one that could provide more than $300 million in new money.

Today, 39 states and the District of Columbia have lotteries. Every state that borders Oklahoma has a lottery, except for Arkansas. Oklahoma is one of just 11 states without a lottery. And, millions of dollars which could be spent on education are going to our neighboring states.

Let's pledge today to submit the right education lottery to a vote of the people. And, let's let the people vote on the education lottery this year. This will not come to pass without true bipartisanship.

Let me be absolutely clear: I am not asking you to vote for or against the education lottery. I am only asking you to let the people vote and decide the issue.

If we fail, we will have lost the opportunity to resolve the issue this year, and we will have lost an opportunity to bring hundreds of millions of new dollars into education.

If the citizens of Oklahoma do pass the education lottery, the benefits will be far-reaching. We'll have more money for early childhood programs, such as tutoring for at-risk students and providing incentives for parental involvement. We can put much-needed technology and equipment in our classrooms and link our rural schools by fiber optics. We'll be able to do a better job of keeping our best and brightest teachers in Oklahoma where they belong - teaching our children. We'll be able to endow more chairs at our colleges and universities. And, we can send every qualified Oklahoman to college or career tech tuition free. In the end, we'll have a built-in revenue stream to enhance education, our most precious and promising expenditure. To broaden the base of economic development, I am committed to having a close partnership with the private sector to recruit new businesses and encourage and support existing businesses in Oklahoma. We must continue to give support and incentives for the growth of small businesses and the survival of the family farmer. Throughout the transition, we consulted business leaders for their best advice, and we will continue to work closely with the private sector because Government does not have all the answers. Beyond the budget crunch, Oklahoma suffers from another crisis: access to health care and the spiraling costs of prescription drugs. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than 650,000 Oklahomans live without health insurance. Seventy-five percent are adults, and the vast majority have jobs.

They find themselves in a treacherous trap. They earn too much or do not qualify for Medicaid, and yet they do not earn enough to afford health insurance.

This is wrong. It undermines our values. No one should have to choose between medicine and other necessities. No one should have to use the emergency room every time a child gets sick. And no one should have to live in constant fear that a medical problem will become a financial crisis.

We should continue to build on the health care and HMO reforms already enacted by the Oklahoma Legislature. For example, we should maximize our Medicaid program, and, at the same time, increase access by allowing limited liability for doctors who donate care to the poor.

Perhaps more than any other factor, the spiraling cost of prescription drugs is driving the cost of health care higher and higher. Each day, more Oklahomans find they simply cannot afford the prescription drugs they need. Individually, we are helpless in this situation. Together, however, we can level the playing field in our negotiations with the big drug companies to make the cost of medicine more reasonable.

Already, I have begun working with other Governors in our region to form a multi-state bulk purchasing pool to help drive down the cost of prescription drugs. We need to explore other options for making health care more affordable, such as that proposed by Senator Jay Paul Gumm in Senate Bill 710 and Senator Bernest Cain in Senate Bill 830. No one especially our seniors - should have to choose between buying groceries or life-saving medicines.

Along with health care, our cost of corrections continues to climb. While we all share a common commitment to keeping our communities safe, we far exceed the national norm in the percentage of our population we incarcerate. Surely there are reasonable alternatives to accomplish the twin goals of public safety and prudent government expenditures. Many of you in this Chamber are sponsoring legislation seeking alternatives to the costly warehousing of prisoners. I encourage all of us to explore these more desirable options.

A fundamental duty of government is to protect its people. We need no reminder in these turbulent times of the need for homeland security.

And, security is not just the job of the federal government. We have undertaken a serious homeland security effort that coordinates our resources, equips the state to protect our citizens, and enables Oklahoma to continue to play a prominent role in the national effort to protect this country. Although Oklahoma is as prepared as any state to respond if and when disaster strikes, we need to make our homeland security office permanent and a priority. The safety of our citizens cannot be left to chance.

Although this year will not be a favorable one for tax reductions, we need to begin serious discussions about targeted relief for our teachers and our seniors. First, we should discuss rewarding teachers who purchase books and materials out of their own pockets when schools cannot afford to as my own wife, Kim, has done as a teacher in the Shawnee public schools. I'd like to take a moment to recognize one among many such teachers today:

Cathy Streight, who teaches at Jenks Freshman Academy, has spent $500 of her own money in each of the last 12 years so her students could have adequate supplies. Cathy, would you please stand and be recognized?

Because of this kind of sacrifice, we should take a careful look at legislation proposed by Senator Charles Ford in Senate Bill 283 that allows a tax credit for teachers who buy supplies for their students.

Second, we should consider exempting retirement income of seniors from taxation, not only to recognize the contributions of our greatest generation but to make Oklahoma an attractive place to relocate for non-resident seniors. Their dollars would lead to valuable economic growth. Their wisdom, generosity, and volunteerism would make Oklahoma a better place. Senators Glenn Coffee and Scott Pruitt, among others, are working on just such an idea. However, we must tread carefully. This current crisis needs to be considered as we discuss implementing any new tax relief.

The past contributions of our seniors especially come to mind during war time. Today, as we pray for peace in our world, we renew our commitment to keep America and Oklahoma strong. We in state government must do our part to support Oklahoma's five military bases. Representative David Braddock led a task force to develop plans for maintaining the vitality of these important defense installations. We should do all we can to support them.

In the past, Oklahoma's men and women have served with honor, valor and distinction when called to their country's service. Some 370,000 from across our state have earned this badge of courage by serving our nation in times of conflict. Perhaps more than any other state, Oklahoma has the reputation of caring well for our veterans. We are proud of our veterans centers, including the newest a world-class facility under construction in Lawton which I toured last week. We will open that center as planned this summer.

Let's also take a moment to salute our men and women serving their country today. As they serve, we will support them and their families, and we'll renew our promise of care in the future. Nothing we can say will offer more assurance of keeping that pledge than our actions toward those who have already made that sacrifice. As Governor, I intend to make sure we do not break that promise.

To the public employees of this great state, I wish to express my sincere appreciation. You perform essential and often thankless acts of public service every day. I certainly understand that the current fiscal crisis affects you more than anyone. You are an important part of the Oklahoma family, and we must not fail to reward your service in better economic times.

With the end of this address comes the beginning of a new Session. As I close, I want to tell you my legislative colleagues that I know you have the best interests of Oklahoma at heart. I know that you like me desire to put aside our political differences and work together. I know we can get through this crisis in a way that honors our civil discourse. And, I know when we work together without regard to party affiliation, without regard to petty differences we will do great things and make Oklahomans proud.

God Bless You. God Bless Oklahoma. And God Bless America.
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