Alabama State of the State Address 2007
By Stateline Staff
MONTGOMERY, Ala., March 6 - Following is the prepared text of Gov. Bob Riley's (R) 2007 state of the state address:
Lieutenant Governor Folsom, Speaker Hammett, Senator Mitchem, Representative Newton, esteemed judges, members of the Legislature and my fellow Alabamians:
As a governor, you have the pleasure and honor of doing many things. Some you look forward to and enjoy. Others will break your heart. Last week I met with our fellow citizens in Enterprise and Miller's Ferry after a tornado delivered a devastating blow. Their lives and property and community have been shattered. But I can tell you, after being with so many of them, their spirit, their resolve and their faith in Almighty God remains unwavering, even in the midst of this terrible storm. To our fellow citizens, you are not alone. In Alabama, when tragedy strikes one of us, it strikes all of us. We stand ready to help you in any way we can. The Book of Matthew says, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." Tonight, I would ask for a brief moment of silence to mourn those who we lost and pray for the comfort and courage of those who are left to carry on. Thank you.
We meet tonight mere days after the completion of another effective special session. I want to thank each of you for working with me to forge a bipartisan economic growth plan for our state. This plan will allow us to continue to recruit new industries, help our existing industries and create more jobs. So tonight, I appeal to all Alabamians: please give our economic growth plan your support. It passed with the unanimous vote of your elected representatives. Now, with the people's support, we can put Alabama's economic development into overdrive.
It's because of the people that we are here tonight, and, it's the people we must serve. The elections are now behind us. This session and the next four years must now be about finding solutions to the challenges we face.
Fortunately, those challenges are not as daunting as those we faced four years ago. The budget deficit we inherited is gone, replaced with another record surplus. Our economy is booming and education funding and performance are at record highs.
36,000 more Alabamians now have a job. Our unemployment is the lowest in the history of this state.
150 more schools became part of our nationally-acclaimed Alabama Reading Initiative.
Students in 89 more schools began benefiting from the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative.
And 386 children waiting in foster homes were adopted into permanent, loving homes.
We also terminated the costly and long-running lawsuits against the state. The Wyatt case, the R.C. Case, the Knight case, the teacher testing case and now the Reynolds case. Now we will no longer pay millions each year in legal costs. The lawyers may not be happy about that, but the taxpayers certainly are.
Ladies and gentlemen, that's tremendous progress. We can all be proud of what we've accomplished, but the people demand more from each of us.
They demand that we finish what we have started to improve the quality of education, to provide tax relief, to reform government, to make our state a leader in every area that counts.
Ladies and gentlemen, the state of the state is the strongest it has ever been. But, it's still not good enough - not for me, not for you and certainly not for the people of Alabama. Consider this: Too many children still go to schools in disrepair and struggle to learn in overcrowded portable classrooms. The tax cut we passed last year, while enormously positive for thousands of our families, was too targeted and left too many families behind. No other state allows lobbyists to secretly spend more on public officials than Alabama. And more than 650,000 Alabamians still do not have health insurance.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is unacceptable. We can do better. And let there be no doubt, we will.
You and I have both heard from the pundits, the "experts." They look at us and predict we won't get along, we won't get much done. Well, with all due respect, they really don't know the hearts and the minds of the people in this room. I know that despite our differences, each one of you cares deeply about Alabama. I know you believe in her people and want to leave a positive legacy behind when your time here is done. I do, too. So I propose one thing. I propose tonight that we work together not on a Republican agenda or a Democratic agenda, but only on one shared agenda: Alabama's agenda.
We've worked together to set education in Alabama on a new course, and now the results are being noticed nationally. Recently, Education Week released a nationwide study analyzing each state's plans to improve education. Alabama ranked 8th best - yes, 8th best - in the nation.
Now, our job is to keep it on the right track. So tonight, I am proposing a budget that increases education funding by more than $390 million and will fully fund each and every request made by our State School Board. This budget I'm sending to you invests more money into education than ever before in Alabama's history.
None of us can predict the future, but we do know the best jobs of tomorrow will require a strong foundation in math and science. That's why we must continue to make the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative a top funding priority. In every case, on every standardized test, AMSTI schools outperformed non-AMSTI schools. My budget increases AMSTI funding from $22 million to $33 million. So that by the end of 2008, we will have AMSTI in 614 schools, serving a total of 304,000 students.
One of the reasons why AMSTI is so successful is because it is based on the same principles as the Alabama Reading Initiative.
Three years ago, I made a commitment to put ARI in every kindergarten, first, second and third grade. You worked with me to fulfill that promise and now, 28,000 teachers have completed their training.
But, now the time has come to give all our children the advantages of the Alabama Reading Initiative. So my budget this year increases funding and allows us to begin expanding ARI into all grades. And when you pass my budget, students in 910 Alabama schools will benefit from this proven program that today is recognized as a model for other states.
For Alabama to succeed, our children must have more classroom opportunities, regardless of where they go to school. For too long, students in rural communities or in inner cities have been denied the range of courses offered in other schools. Courses like AP classes, foreign languages, and advanced math and science.
Today, Alabama is solving this problem with a 21st century approach to learning. We're using technology to offer students more courses and more teachers through our ACCESS distance learning program.
In less than one year, we've brought this interactive innovation to 44 of our high schools. Tonight, I'm announcing that we are expanding ACCESS to an additional 26 high schools around the state, effective immediately.
But, we won't stop there. If you approve my budget, another 150 high schools will receive ACCESS technology, and we will have put distance learning in more than half of Alabama's high schools in just three years. And, we will have distance learning labs in all high schools by 2010.
Watching our schools use technology to expand the horizons of our students is more than remarkable, it's inspirational. But perhaps the most inspirational part of our schools isn't the technology, it's our teachers. Their commitment to the children of this state is truly inspiring. But, many of our teachers haven't received the encouragement and support they need.
The Commission on Quality Teaching brought together some of our best teachers and they recommended ways that we can help all teachers. Each year, Alabama adds approximately 4,000 new teachers. Yet, 50 percent of them will leave teaching by their fifth year. However, the U.S. Department of Education reports that attrition rates can be reduced by two-thirds if they are part of a mentoring program.
And so, Alabama will pair our first and second-year teachers with trained mentors. Those new to teaching will no longer be left without a network of support. Instead, they will receive direction and help in the years that they need it most.
And allow me to be clear about this: we should and we will pay our teachers more. In my last two budgets, I've proposed teacher pay raises each year because I've always believed we should pay our teachers as much as we can possibly afford, but not more. So tonight, I am very pleased to report that - this year - we can afford a pay raise of seven percent.
If you enact this seven percent raise, teachers in Alabama will be making 20 percent more than they did just three years ago.
It has never made any sense to me that teaching is the one profession that does not reward superior performance. Good teachers aren't threatened by performance pay. They welcome it because they know great teachers should be paid more. Excellence in education should be encouraged and rewarded, which is why my budget also includes a pilot program for performance bonuses for teachers.
In the past fiscal year, this Legislature funded performance bonuses for schools that showed significant academic progress, and I had the pleasure of being there when these bonuses were presented to the schools. School leaders were so excited and enthusiastic when they received these bonuses, and I guarantee you, the ones who received the biggest bonuses will do everything they can to improve academic progress even more so they can get another bonus.
Ladies and gentlemen, if we're willing to provide bonuses to schools that excel, why shouldn't we provide bonuses to teachers who excel? Teachers who do more, who achieve more, deserve more, and it's time to make the teaching profession one that rewards superior performance.
While we're investing record amounts in classroom programs and raises for our teachers, let's not forget the school buildings themselves.
Two years ago, I told many of you that I wanted to pass a major bond issue for school construction. You told me, "Now is not the time, Governor." So, then I came back to you with an idea - not for a bond measure - but for a direct funding bill. And again you told me, "Now is not the time, Governor."
Well, ladies and gentlemen, our children and teachers can't wait any longer. NOW IS THE TIME.
So, in this session, I will propose a bold and aggressive school construction initiative of $850 million. To keep the politics out of it, I propose we fairly and objectively distribute the funds to every system based on school enrollment. So, on behalf of our students, teachers and parents, I ask you to provide our schools with additional resources for new construction, safety improvements and technology upgrades they need.
And, ladies and gentlemen, we are doing the right thing to protect our schools against proration if the economy unexpectedly slows down. This year I can report to you that we have fully repaid every penny that was owed to our Constitutional rainy day fund, and we have more than ever before in our proration prevention account.
Never before has Alabama been so close to offering our children the world-class education they deserve. And, the only reason - let me repeat - the only reason we've been able to increase education funding in this state by more than $2 billion is because we have the strongest economy in the state's history, an economy that's creating new jobs and increasing revenue for education. To increase education funding even more next year, and the year after and beyond, we must take steps today to strengthen our economy.
During this session, you'll hear some say, "We do not need to give the people of Alabama tax relief. We're already the lowest taxed state in the nation." Ladies and gentlemen, that is not a criticism. That is a point of pride.
And, that's not what this debate is about. This debate is about keeping our economy and education budget growing through targeted tax incentives and broader tax relief.
The tax cut we passed last year was good, but not good enough. Today, we have the ability and the resources to expand those tax cuts so they reach Alabama's middle class. And, there is no reason why we shouldn't. So I'm proposing we give more than 90 percent of Alabama families a tax cut. Ladies and gentlemen, they have earned it, they deserve it and there's no reason why they shouldn't have it.
By 2010, more than 80 percent of all jobs will require skill levels beyond those gained in high school. Almost every worker will need training and education at, at least, the postsecondary level. That is why we must provide more opportunities for Alabamians to get the technical training they need to be successful in today's global market.
I will propose a "Back to School" Tax Credit that will encourage our adult workers to go back to school and receive job training in high growth, high demand and high paying jobs.
All Alabama families and all our small businesses are painfully aware that health care costs have risen dramatically. Many small businesses simply can't keep up with the cost increase.
That's why providing Alabama's small businesses and their employees with a health care tax incentive makes perfect sense. I will be proposing legislation allowing small businesses to deduct twice the amount they pay for health insurance premiums. And small business workers will be allowed to deduct twice the amount they contribute toward their health insurance.
While Alabama's surging economy has created a world of new opportunities for thousands, we must not forget those who have been left behind.
That's why I want you to pass a Work Opportunity Tax Credit - an incentive for employers to hire low-income workers, those on welfare and disabled veterans. Because the best anti-poverty program will never be created by government. It will be created by employers, and it's called a job.
Alabama's senior citizens also deserve help. Tom Brokaw was right when he called them "The Greatest Generation." So, I propose we exempt the first $10,000 of retirement income from taxes, to help ease the burden that falls hardest on our seniors who are already on fixed incomes. We've made prescription medicines more accessible to our seniors through an expansion of our Senior R-X program, and that will continue. Now, we must help our seniors and all Alabamians afford the non-prescription medicines they need. So, I ask you to join me in eliminating the sales tax on all over-the-counter medications.
Arguments that these tax incentives will hurt education are simply not true. When you increase job opportunities, help middle class families and make health care more affordable, you will increase revenues going into education. And then, I promise you this: we will put even more funding into every Alabama classroom.
Ladies and gentlemen, we will improve our schools. We will grow our economy. But, until we pass ethics reform, we will never have the trust and confidence of those we serve.
Anyone who has paid attention to our efforts to pass ethics reform has every right to be discouraged. But, this year, I am more optimistic than ever before because I saw so many of you on TV saying you would during your campaigns. I take you at your word, and so did the voters.
I have with me the campaign platform I proposed, the campaign platform Republicans proposed and the campaign platform Democrats proposed. When you put them side-by-side, it's remarkable how much they have in common.
Everyone agreed to stop PAC-to-PAC transfers. Everyone agreed to require full disclosure of every penny that lobbyists spend on public officials, and everyone agreed to eliminate "pork" projects from our budgets. A man or woman is only as good as his or her word. So let's all keep our word and finally pass ethics reform.
Ladies and gentlemen, there is also no legitimate need for a special session on ethics because you can and you should pass these reforms in this regular session.
During the past four years, Alabama has been a leader in combating illegal immigration. Now we must do more. I will send to you a comprehensive package of bills that will have bipartisan support; proposals that will become the strongest illegal immigration laws in the United States. Alabama will always welcome those who follow the law when they enter our country. But we will not stand idly by and do nothing about those who don't.
One other issue where we have found common ground is the need to end our dependence on foreign oil. Earlier today, I received a report from Alabama's Alternative Energy Committee. It's a bipartisan task force brought together by my administration and Commissioner Ron Sparks. Commissioner, thank you for your outstanding leadership.
Just as Alabama played the key role in mankind's first journeys into space, we can now play a key role in America's search for a more secure, less dependent future. Developing new sources of energy should be the equivalent of this generation's Apollo moon shot. So let's work together to again secure Alabama's rightful place in another of mankind's great quests.
Of course our greatest quest, one that America has undertaken since our founding and continues until this very moment, is helping oppressed people live in freedom. Tonight, while you and I are here in the safety of this impressive chamber, Alabamians are fighting for their very lives - and ours. I know Americans are divided over the war in Iraq, but we must not be divided over supporting our troops. While Congress engages in a dangerous debate over funding for our soldiers, let's send them an unmistakable message: Alabama fully supports our troops. I will be sending a letter to congressional leaders, urging them not to cut funding for our troops deployed in Iraq, and I will be asking my fellow governors to do the same. Regardless of your opinion on the war, the President or the Congress, I ask this Legislature to pass a resolution voicing our support for our troops and our opposition to attempts by Congress to cut their funding. Our Alabama soldiers in Iraq and others on the way deserve to have our undivided and our unwavering support.
I wish there was more time tonight to talk about the rest of Alabama's agenda; ideas that can take Alabama from good to great. But, over the coming days and weeks, I hope we discuss all of our priorities openly, honestly and candidly - including your ideas to help your communities and plans I will send you to improve our high school graduation rate, to continue reforming our corrections system, tax incentives to create more jobs in our rural communities and an end to annual appraisals.
Ladies and gentlemen, I expect success for this session. I hope you do, too, because none of our goals will be accomplished if we don't find a way to work together. We know how to do it. All of us put our differences aside to do something truly great for Alabama during the special session. But that's just the beginning. There are more challenges to overcome. More problems to solve, and so much more we must do to make this state as strong as it can be. This time, these opportunities beg us to put partisanship aside. Instead, let us put Alabama and her people first.
God Bless America and the great state of Alabama.