2005 State of the State Address

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Good morning.

President Lee, Speaker Bense, members of the Legislature, members of the Supreme Court, honored guests, and my fellow Floridians, it is an honor to be with you today to review the current state of our beloved State of Florida, and to begin a discussion of the next steps toward a future of continued promise and opportunity.

I?m especially glad to have Senator Les Miller and Representative David Coley here today.  Along with our gratitude for their service, we offer our prayers for their swift recovery.

Our prayers are also with the family of Bill Bankhead.  Bill served in this Legislature, and in the executive branch of state government, and did both with skill and honor.

My wife, Columba, is here today.  I am grateful for her contributions to this state as First Lady, and for her unwavering support that allows me to serve as Governor to the best of my ability.  I have been blessed by her love and graceful influence in my life for more than 34 years, long enough to understand how much of my happiness and success I owe to her.

Lt. Governor Toni Jennings also joins us today.  Over the last two years we have served as a team, and have forged a partnership that I value immensely.  I thank her for her commitment and service to the people of our state.

Six months ago, as the last of four major hurricanes swept across our shores, the state of our state was an open question.  Today many communities still face challenges, and many residents are still rebuilding lives interrupted by the storms.  But our state continues to move forward, creating more jobs than any other state in the nation, attracting investment, and generating revenues for government that outpace our most ambitious projections.  This strength ensures we have the resources to help those in need, as well as the ability to recover and rebuild.

Ladies and gentlemen, thanks to the dynamic spirit and determination of Floridians, the state of our state is stronger than ever. 

We enter 2005 with strong momentum and a growing economy.  We have the financial reserves to meet unexpected challenges, as well as improved credit ratings that validate our policies and practices.

I thank you all for your efforts, and our progress.

This year our nation remains at war with the enemies of freedom, and we honor the service of soldiers who stand courageously against all threats.  We rely on their strength, and they can count on our support. 

We understand their sacrifice, and we respect the difference they?re making. 

In his State of the Union address, our President introduced an Iraqi woman who proudly raised her vote stained finger to make a ?victory? sign for her country.  She was there to remind us of the freedom we?ve fostered half a world away. 

Maki Kubba has lived in Florida since 1992, and is here today with his son, Hany. 

As a young political activist speaking out against the evil of Saddam Hussein, Maki was imprisoned and tortured, as his father had been before him.  He was eventually released, and continued his opposition to the regime.  Sentenced to death in 1979, Maki fled to America.  He was 21.

In January, Maki joined a dozen friends from the Tampa area to make the 24-hour roundtrip drive to Nashville.  Together, they registered to vote in the first real Iraq election in history.  A week later, they repeated the long journey to cast their ballots.  When asked why, Maki said, ?voting is the best bullet to shoot against the terrorists.?

Twenty-six years after fleeing for his life, Maki is considering a return to Iraq before the next election, in time to run for office.  Godspeed, Maki.

People often talk broadly about the importance of the fight for liberty.  Maki shows us what it means for our friends and neighbors, both here and abroad. 

First Lieutenant Tommy Davis shows us what it takes to change the world.

He was deployed to Iraq on his birthday in 2003, as part of the 3rd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment from Tallahassee.  He and his men were some of the first Florida National Guard troops in the region.  He led his platoon in combat along the eastern side of Iraq to Baghdad.

In Baghdad, Lieutenant Davis and his men trained some of the first Iraqi Defense Forces. 

They also renovated schools, collected supplies for children, and rebuilt a local soccer field before leaving in January 2004.

Lieutenant Davis returned home to Chipley and reunited with his wife, Denise, and their two children, Holly and Trey.  Just 90 days later he and his battalion provided search and rescue services as well as security and food distribution for hurricane victims.

Lieutenant Davis will report for active duty again in just two days.  This time he?s headed to Afghanistan for a year, one of 1,200 Florida Army National Guards who will train the Afghan National Army to defend their nation?s hard-won freedom from all threats.

Lieutenant Davis, we send you forward with our deepest respect, our sincere gratitude, and our prayers for your family and for your safe return.

Last year we invested $6.5 million to refurbish National Guard armories in Florida.  I?m asking for an additional $12.3 million this year to make sure our Guard armories can train and prepare soldiers and airmen to serve wherever they are needed.

Soldiers like Lieutenant Davis deserve our full support and so do their families.  I?m asking lawmakers for $5 million to establish an emergency grant program to ensure the families of our deployed Guard troops have the support they need to meet the challenges here at home while their loved ones are away.

We?ve seen heroism in combat fatigues and in ink-stained fingers raised in defiance of tyranny and terror.  We also saw it closer to home in first responder uniforms, and in thousands of storm-weary public servants who say they were just doing their jobs.

People like Ben Nelson -- alias ?Weatherboy? -- the young meteorologist who tracked the storms, and calculated their potential impact with each shift of the wind.  And Craig Fugate, who led Florida?s Emergency Operations Team forward storm after storm... after storm...after storm, with the calm resolve that set the tone for our response. 

Floridians in all uniforms of first response, from law enforcement, to firefighters, to paramedics, to public health nurses and volunteers used their skill and courage to ensure the safety of millions.  Professionals like Vero Beach Police Chief Jim Gabbard and his team rushed to help wherever they were needed. 

When residents of a senior citizen mobile home community took refuge in their activities center, rising floods threatened to drown them all.  Chief Gabbard and his team responded in the midst of the storm, stripping off their heavy gear and swimming to the rescue.  They saved lives and defined the heroism of first responders across our state.

State workers also found ways to meet the emergency needs of the people they serve.  I watched Dr. John Agwunobi lead thousands of workers as Secretary of the Department of Health, and personally save a life in a Port Charlotte shelter the day after Charley hit that community with a vengeance. 

The commitment of these public servants was the rule, rather than the exception.  Florida is grateful to them, and the thousands of men and women they represent, who each met this extraordinary challenge with everything they had to give.

On behalf of the millions of Floridians you served with such skill and valor, we thank you.

I have never been prouder to be Governor of Florida.  It was a gift of extreme privilege to witness the strength of our state, a strength drawn from the hearts of our people.  Our shared experience defined us as Floridians, and left us changed in profound and personal ways.

I was moved by the resiliency of our people.  By the limitless compassion of friends and family and strangers alike.  By the generosity of spirit that brought us together to conquer obstacles that may have deterred us in less demanding times.

Our response brought out the very best in our state and ourselves.  It stripped away politics and business as usual, and left us public service in its purest and most powerful form. 

We should never accept less from ourselves, or for our state.  We should use the same incredible spirit of cooperative innovation to face the significant long-term challenges and opportunities ahead.

We?ll need courage to achieve our goals for this state.  We?ll also need the public?s trust.  Together we must continually earn that trust, and be worthy of it. 

The people who sent us here deserve transparency in Tallahassee.  As their representatives, we are accountable to them.  We cannot allow anything to erode the trust between us and the people we serve.  With this in mind, I applaud President Tom Lee?s commitment to full disclosure of expenses related to lobbying and fund raising activities.

In the next 60 days you?ll work to craft a budget, implement constitutional amendments, while reforming the process itself, and build our voluntary pre-kindergarten program.  You?ll also tackle reforms of our procurement practices and election process, among other issues.

While you have a duty to accomplish all of these, I ask that we achieve even more.

This is not the time for timid tweaks to the status quo.  This is the time for bold, brave ideas in Florida that will shape our future and define us as dreamers, builders, and problem solvers.

Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, the three of us share a philosophy of government, and a commitment to public office as a public service rather than a career.  We each have two years left to serve the people of Florida before returning to private life. 

We have a finite, focused opportunity to lead Florida to a stronger future than we have today.  Working together, with a shared commitment to big ideas and the hard work they require, we will truly serve our state.

We have the opportunity to build on our education reforms, and to transform our unsustainable Medicaid system.

Now is the time to improve our business climate to sustain continued growth, and to create a meaningful strategy to balance that growth with the quality of life in our communities.

I ask you to consider proposals to achieve these goals in the spirit of true partnership, to make a difference in the state of our beloved State of Florida.

We?ve already made a real difference, by redirecting an education system that was subtly teaching our children where they come from, is more important than where they?re going.  Together we are demanding more for our students, and giving them the tools to build a future bigger and brighter than their past.

But good policy and ambitious reform aren?t enough to improve education.  We also need the sincere effort of truly talented educators in our schools. 

Florida has those teachers, and their hard work is already changing the lives of the young people they teach.  For the first time ever, more than half the students in our public schools are reading at or above grade level.  Graduation rates are up from 60% to 72%.  Drop out rates are down by almost half.  Minority students are closing the achievement gap by gaining ground twice as fast in reading, and three times as fast in math, than their white classmates. 

Each year we empower more students to dream bigger.  But the job is far from over. 

In 2002, Florida voters amended the Constitution to reduce class size in Florida schools.  We?re implementing that amendment, but at a tremendous cost.

Last month, I was joined by teachers, principals, school superintendents, leaders from the Florida PTA, the Florida School Board Association, the Florida Association of School Administrators, and the leadership of the Legislature, to highlight the impact of the class size amendment on our schools, and to propose a better approach.

This cross-section of education advocates understand that complete implementation will turn our teacher shortage into a crisis, and eat up resources we need to recruit and retain quality educators. 

We?ve spent more than $2 billion on implementation so far.  Next year, the figure will rise to $3.8 billion, and we?re on track to spend $22.2 billion by 2010-11.  Additionally, understandable reluctance to cancel art and music classes, to bus students, and to convert resource rooms to classrooms will require more construction, driving the actual cost to implement as high as $26.4 billion.

Teachers make the difference.  And we would serve our students better by focusing on attracting and retaining the quality teachers who can help them discover the world, rather than pushing class size reduction down to every class in every school, in every district throughout the state.

With support from the leadership of the Legislature, we?ve proposed a joint resolution to ask voters to amend the Constitution, to give school districts the flexibility to maintain class size reductions at the district average level, accelerate the required reductions by three years to the 2007-08 school year, raise the minimum teacher salary to $35,000 and to keep it above the national average starting salary in the future.

We need to empower our school districts to put quality teachers in every school, and we must support our dedicated teachers with a professional pay scale that reflects their achievements and contributions.  Educators who teach a subject in a critical shortage area, or teach in a low-income or high crime community, should be compensated accordingly.  Educators who mentor other teachers, or play a leadership role in their schools, should be rewarded for the extra value they add.

I?m also asking that we make reading an integral part of education, and that teachers in all subject areas become effective reading instructors.  We?ve seen the difference our ?Just Read, Florida!? initiative has made, but we have a long way to go.

It?s time to make our reading initiatives a permanent part of our public school budget.  I am asking the Legislature to include reading dollars in our public school funding formula.  We must ensure every school in Florida has money for reading instruction and that reading funding increases as our public school budget grows each year.

Last year we introduced reading coaches into our middle schools, and we?re continuing this emphasis on reading instruction in the middle grades.  Our plan requires students in grades six through eight who cannot read at grade level to take a reading class based on sound research developed by reading experts.

We?re also aligning middle school coursework and grading systems with our high schools, and ensuring middle school students complete minimum coursework requirements for promotion to high school.  We?re confident these changes will improve the way we serve students in our middle schools, and help them succeed in high school.

I am proud of our progress and committed to ongoing improvement.  But no matter how strong our public schools become, they may not meet the needs of some students.  This year we?re proposing a program to help chronically struggling students.  Children who score a Level 1, or below basic level, on the reading portion of the FCAT cannot read independently.  Students who consistently struggle to master these skills in our schools should have other education options.

I?m asking the Legislature to create the Reading Compact Scholarship for students who read at Level 1 for three consecutive years, so their parents can find the best solution, whether public or private, for their success.

We must think big and act boldly to ensure our education system addresses the needs of all students.  We need to apply that same bold, innovative spirit to find better ways to deliver medical care and improve the health of Florida?s most vulnerable residents.

Almost a year ago, with the encouragement of the current Legislative leadership, we began asking a fundamental question regarding Medicaid.  We asked, ?How would we run the system, if we weren?t limited by how we?ve always done it in the past??

The answer creates a new vision for Medicaid, and demands a transformation of the entire system.  Effective, modern Medicaid starts with the premise that the people in the program should have the power to make meaningful choices for themselves and their families.

The transformed system would reward healthy lifestyle decisions, which will save millions and enhance the quality of life for thousands of Floridians.  The new system would use competitive market principles to unleash innovation, spurring new and better ways to serve patients.

Our transformed Medicaid would be a more fiscally responsible and predictable system, with spending determined by the Florida Legislature and the federal match.

The new Medicaid system would reduce fraud, by combining the oversight of the Agency for Healthcare Administration with the management expertise of provider service networks, insurers, and HMOs. 

These reforms would be phased in over time, in deference to the complexity of the medical system.  This measured implementation allows us to monitor the impact of each change and avoid unintended consequences.

We must transform Medicaid if we are to save it for the people who need it. 

Over the last six years Medicaid costs have increased an average of MORE THAN 13% annually.  State revenues grew an average of 6% a year during that time.  There is no source of revenue that will grow as fast as our Medicaid costs.  We have to find a solution not limited by what Medicaid is today, but focused on how to make it better tomorrow.

Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, together we can protect Medicaid for future generations and make it more responsive to the needs of the people it serves.

Creating and maintaining a world-class education system from pre-school to graduate school, as well as effective and efficient healthcare delivery and other services critical to the wellbeing of Floridians will require increased funding over the long term. 

Over the last few years we?ve learned that a sound fiscal policy improves the opportunity for Floridians to succeed.  Their success, in turn, makes it possible for state government to fund the priorities of the state.  We know we cannot tax our way to prosperity, and we are focused on sound fiscal policy and building a world-class business climate in Florida.

Conservative fiscal management in government is a fundamental element of a strong state economy.  All three major rating agencies - Moody?s, Fitch, and Standard & Poor?s - have upgraded Florida?s bond rating in recent weeks, including our first triple-A rating ever.  Our strong financial reserves, prudent debt management, and proven ability to control government spending, make Florida a stronger state.

Our sensible tax structure is another vital part of our business climate.  We?ve provided $10.7 billion in cumulative tax relief since 1999, and we?ve seen a robust and steady increase in our state revenues during that time.  This year, I?m recommending more tax cuts for Florida.

We need to provide tax relief to attract manufacturing investment, and make our state more competitive for research and development programs. 

We need to support Florida families with a nine-day holiday from sales taxes on clothing, books, and school supplies.  We need to eliminate what remains of the cumbersome by the drink tax. We need to rid our state of the remaining intangibles tax, an insidious tax on savings and investment.

It is their money, not ours.  They earned it, they should keep it.

These tax cuts amount to a rounding error in our $62 billion dollar budget.  However, these dollars have a much greater impact on the Florida families and businesses who get to keep them.  In their hands, the same money also has a greater impact on our state, as it is invested back into the economy, generating more revenue to meet our growing needs. 

For two years, Florida has led the United States in the number of jobs created and our unemployment rate is consistently below the national average.  Every week another industry leader decides to grow its future in Florida.

Our supportive tax environment helps, but businesses and entrepreneurs only create jobs in places where the workforce is robust enough, skilled enough, and in this day and age, technologically savvy enough to support their needs.  Our long-term competitiveness demands that we create that workforce in Florida, and ensure the people in our state are ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century economy and job market.

My budget includes a funding increase of $103 million for workforce development next year.  We?re proposing to spend $25 million of this new money to fund ?Jobs for Florida?s Future?, an initiative to create workforce development programs in public schools and community colleges that target high skill, high wage occupations.  I thank Speaker Allan Bense for his leadership on this critical issue.

As we create the workforce of the future, we also need to address threats to Florida?s business climate.  Predatory litigation is a growing threat to our economic growth. 

The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform ranks states according to fairness of their legal systems, based on a Harris Interactive survey of 1,400 corporate counsels.  In 2004, Florida ranked 38th.  This year we dropped to 42nd.  At this rate, we?ll be dead last in two years. 

The problem is not limited to business owners, it affects everyone who holds a job or makes a purchase.  Spiraling litigation costs limit job creation.  They limit employee benefits and wages for working Floridians, and they are passed along in higher prices to consumers. 

These increased costs create what amounts to a ?litigation tax? on Floridians.  In 2003, that tax was almost $3,400 for a family of four, or $845 per person.

We need meaningful tort reform, and we need it now.

We must eliminate ?joint and several? liability in Florida, so that people and businesses pay for the injury or loss they cause according to responsibility, rather than financial ability.

We must ensure that class action awards and settlements are directed to the people who have suffered injury, to ensure they are compensated fairly.

I thank Speaker Bense for his commitment to tort reform, and I look forward to working with him and the Legislature to create a solution that holds businesses accountable for wrongdoing, without threatening the survival of those operating in good faith.

As we do the right things to create economic opportunities on a long-term basis, we must also take steps to ensure that our growth enhances, rather than detracts, from the quality of life that is the trademark of the Sunshine State. 

After many years of discussion, drawing on lessons learned as well as best practices discovered, now is the time to create a comprehensive strategy for development in Florida. 

Our motto for economic opportunity in Florida has been, ?If you build it, they will come?.  But we have to build all of it, including the infrastructure to support them when they get here. 

We need true concurrency between new development and the infrastructure needed to meet the demand on roads, schools, and water resources the development creates.  Development must be tied directly to the infrastructure it will use, and growth decisions must be made accordingly.

We need to support this approach with adequate funding for local governments with significant infrastructure needs.  We must ensure the costs of development are aligned between the developer and the community.  And we must also streamline the review process for comprehensive development plans to reduce redundancy and delays.

While local and regional governments must shoulder responsibility for growth in their communities, state government must fund infrastructure of statewide priority.

These are complex issues with competing interests and no easy solutions.  But I ask you to look over the horizon, and envision the future of your hometown if we do nothing.  Can you honestly say we have it right?  That our communities are organized effectively for growth? 

If you can?t, I urge you to work with us to revamp our growth management laws, and provide the funding to make them work.

This is not the time for business as usual in Florida, especially here in the Capitol.  It is the time for big ideas to achieve long-term objectives.  The discussion, debate, and decisions this year will be some of the most important work we?ll ever do in service to this state.  The actions we take regarding education reforms, Medicaid transformation, our business climate and growth management will define Florida for years to come. 

I?m proud and honored to work with you to serve the 17 million Floridians who are counting on us to get the job done.  Thank you for your service, and your continued commitment. 

May God bless the Great State of Florida.