Arkansas State of the State Address 2001
By Stateline Staff
First of all, let me extend my congratulations to all of you for your journey here through the election process. My congratulations go not only to you and your families but also to your constituents for sending you here with the hopes that over the next few days, whether it's 60, 70, 80 or God forbid more than that, that we somehow find a way to do the people's business in such an efficient manner that when we leave here they really understand they have sent the right people to do the job.
I know that for many of you yesterday was an extraordinary day personally -- to look in that gallery or around this room and see your family members watch with an extraordinary sense of pride as you put your hand on a Bible, raised your other hand and took the oath of office to become a member of the 83rd General Assembly for the state of Arkansas.
Yesterday, while visiting with a couple of you out in the hallway, it was very apparent that it hit you that you are part of an extraordinary tradition. Since our state was begun, we have entrusted the work of our state government and, in essence, the very lives of our people to ordinary citizens like us, who take away from jobs and families and make great sacrifices to come and do the people's business.
I understand there are a lot of cynics who will write about the things that go on here these coming days. But let me assure you that among those of us who are intimately involved in this process, whether we always agree on the issues, there's one thing I've come to understand and respect. That is that no person enters into this arena without a deep contemplation of what he or she is embarking upon. And none of us leave this arena without understanding we have paid a high price in so very many ways to enter into this public service.
I know you're all grateful for your families. I'm certainly grateful for mine. I want to express my deep appreciation that my wife, Janet, is here today. I think she is doing a magnificent job as the first lady of our state. I'm glad she's here, and I want to thank her and ask her to stand.
I thank you for that kind reception for her. As a result of that, I'll be able to sleep indoors tonight, and I'm thankful.
I don't have to tell any of you our state is battered and badly bruised from the worst winter storms on record. The National Weather Service, in fact, has called these most recent storms the most devastating and widespread disasters since our state became a territory in 1819.
These storms left hundreds of thousands of our families in the dark. They caused many businesses to be completely paralyzed day after day. And they also made it necessary to close most every school in the state for some period of time during the course of this disaster.
Yet today, due to the heroic work of an incredible number of utility workers who have come from 24 states -- 15,000 or more -- in less time than we could really imagine considering the level of damage, they have restored most of the power to all of the communities.
Now, only a handful of folks in the most remote rural areas are still without. They will labor diligently until everyone is hooked up.
As we come together to launch this session, it also is a time that about 450,000 students in our public schools have finally been able to head back to school. And as these students are dropped off by their parents for the next few months of the spring semester, I can't help but reflect on what it was like to go back to school after the Christmas break. It was almost 40 years ago when I went back to the Brookwood Elementary School after the Christmas break. By the way, that was the same school where some nine years earlier another little boy had gone back to school. He later became the president of the United States.
From that tiny school in Hope, Ark., I remember going to school while carrying just a little back satchel. In it were the simple tools of a first grader, the same tools you probably took with you to school. I brought some of those today just to remind you of them.
The old saying is a picture is worth a thousand words. Now, we didn't have the nice Dr. Seuss bags when I was a kid. We had plain red book satchels. But inside nearly all of them . . . you remember these? Those wonderful tablets. A box of crayons. Some of you may want to play with those later. Let's see what I can do.
And what would a school kid be without some glue? I remember the old paste we had. We didn't have the glue. It used to be paste with a paddle because it was good to eat when everything else failed.
And, of course, scissors. You have to have those. And a lecture from the teacher on not to run with them because you might put your eye out. Or your neighbor's.
And then those great old big, fat pencils. I never have to this day understood why the kids with the smallest hands got the biggest pencils. But that was part of it.
There was something else we would carry. At least some of us would. We would take an apple. Remember that? I never did because we would eat those at home. But some of the kids would carry an apple. And for most people, the apple has become a symbol of education. It has become a symbol of teachers -- taking the teacher an apple. I think it was probably a symbol of appreciation and good will, but let's be real honest. The kids who took the apple, they were hoping it might have just a little bit of influence on that teacher when it came report card time. Some of you thought I might bring yet another kind of fruit here today. But I still thought the apple was most appropriate. So I stuck with that.
I've given you a bit of a reflection about going to the first grade at Brookwood Elementary in Hope. But I want to say that just like the kid hoped to give a good report to his parents with that report card, the state of the state message is, in essence, a report card to the legislators and to the people of our state.
At Brookwood Elementary School, we used to only get grades that were either an "S", which meant satisfactory; an "N", which stood for needs improvement; or the one we dreaded and tried to figure out how to make into something else if we got one, the "U", the unsatisfactory.
Today my purpose in standing before you is to present not so much the apple but the report card and to share with you and the people of our state just where we are as we enter into the first opportunity to set an agenda for the next century in Arkansas.
I want to commend Speaker Broadway, whose speech yesterday I thought was on target. I had the opportunity to watch it on television and thought the speaker did an outstanding job of expressing the fact that 100 years ago, things were quite different in this place we call home. This building was the contemplation of those legislators.
Now, here we are 100 years later not only in a building but, more importantly, trying to build something of a future for the next 100 years for Arkansas citizens.
I'm happy to report that overall our great state is making good grades. The fact is we have perhaps in the past settled for just holding out for average. But in many cases, most of you in this room have decided that holding out for average is not enough, that you're not willing to settle for less than the "S"s and the "S" pluses.
Today, I'm happy to report that our grades are largely "S"s and several "S" pluses. There are a few "N"s in the report, but that's why we are here, to change those "N"s of needs improvement so that when the next legislative session meets, we can call those "N"s, "S"s and "S" pluses.
Let me share with you things I hope you'll be as excited about as I am. Unemployment rates in Arkansas this past year reached record lows. And even in the month of December, with all of the bad weather and all of the gloom and doom prognostications, our unemployment rate was the lowest December rate on record.
We led the nation in the percentage decrease of uninsured citizens, in large part because of the passage four years ago of the ARKids First program, which is one of the nation's premier programs for health insurance. Many were thrilled when Columbia University released the report last year that showed Arkansas reduced child poverty more than any other state.
I got a phone call about three weeks ago from former Gov. Pete Wilson of California. California is considered the technology epicenter of the country. Pete Wilson is now in a global telecommunications and technology business. He said one of the things he does is evaluate states that are moving toward e-government. He said, "Mike, you might be happy to know that as we have looked at all 50 states, Arkansas is leading the nation in moving toward e-government. No state has quite moved forward as your state has in becoming a leader in bringing its state services on-line and using technology effectively for its taxpayers."
For the past three years, test scores in Arkansas have improved. And we believe with the implementation of Smart Start and Smart Step -- largely because of your strong support in this Legislature -- those test scores will continue to improve.
When we cut the tax burden for Arkansas families, we eliminated 40,000 families from the tax rolls. Not the richest but the poorest were eliminated from the tax rolls. By indexing for inflation and cutting out the marriage penalty, we gave Arkansans the best boost they have ever had. You did that with courage, and I thank you for it and the people thank you for it.
Now, we have the largest capital construction program in the history of the state, which you overwhelmingly passed two years ago and the people confirmed with 80 percent of the vote in the summer of 1999.
Sixty-five percent of our citizens recently passed the plan to use our tobacco settlement funds exclusively for health care, making us one of the few states in the nation that has been willing to do that and putting us at the forefront of efforts toward better public health.
Our scholarship programs, the Academic Challenge scholarship and the Governor's Distinguished Scholars program, are heralded across the country and will be featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education this month. I think it's important for you to know that your courage last month, your conviction in coming and making sure the scholarships were fully funded, did not go unnoticed by the more than 10,000 students who received them. I think it's important for all of us to remember that not only are we funding those scholarships, we are the only state in the country that has that kind of extraordinary scholarship program that isn't in some way tied to the scourge of gambling. We decided that it's a priority not to take it off the games people play, but to take it off the priorities we believe are important as a people.
Our car-tag system is the envy of the nation. It's the most efficient.
A few years ago, we had the second highest divorce rate in the country. That is declining. It's not nearly enough, but it's declining to the betterment of our culture.
And our public school spending on a per-pupil basis in four years has gone from $3,620 to $4,679 per pupil. That's one of the highest increases over that period of time this state has ever seen. I want to now ask you to join me in thinking toward a resolve, a resolve as to why we really have shown up this week and what it is we have to commit ourselves to do over the next several weeks.
There have been many predictions of a slow growth in the economy. Let me make sure that every one of us understand that nobody is predicting we are going to have less money than we have had in the past, less money this month than we had a year ago or less money in this fiscal year than we had in the fiscal year before. Every projection, even the most conservative and perhaps the gloomiest of predictions, would say there are going to be more dollars than there were.
But indeed we all recognize there is a slowing of the growth that's taking place. I, for one, want to remind you that the forecasts are not made by people who first come up with a budget and then say, "Let's get a forecast to meet it." That's not how it works. It never has, it doesn't now, it never will. It's a thorough, scientific and, I believe, objective process. It's not perfect. It's subject to be wrong. But more often than not, it has been right.
Because of the ice storms, and as we monitor economic conditions over the next few weeks, we will look at the economic indicators and make sure we are not designing a budget of expenses that exceed what we are likely to receive. But I don't have the idea that this is a time to look for the sky to fall. Rather, it's a time we should look for the skies of opportunity to open and decide that even with limited growth and resources, we will do what every Legislature does, whether it has lots of money or even less money. That is to set its priorities and resolve to fulfill those priorities.
You might be happy to know I've not come to you in this session with a laundry list of dozens and dozens of things in the governor's package of legislative items. Frankly, I don't think we need a lot more government. We need the government we have to work more efficiently. We need it to work in ways that help our citizens rather than helping us to just grow more government. And, frankly, if indeed some of those predictions are right and we are going to be in some times where the economy is slowing, then that's all the more reason not to launch forth with a whole lot of new government programs but rather to scale back everywhere we can except for determining those things which we cannot scale back and then carrying out our responsibilities.
I would suggest to you today that of all the things we have to do, the one thing we must do is what you vowed to do yesterday in taking the oath of office. That's to uphold the Constitution. I know virtually everybody who comes here makes campaign promises along the way. Campaign promises are important and significant, but they are not oaths. And they are not made with the sense of blood resolve.
Our constitutional duty is to provide for a free, equitable and adequate public education for students through the 12th grade. Yesterday, when every person took an oath to fulfill the Constitution, that was one of the things we all agreed we would do because that is a constitutional obligation you and I share.
There are other things we're going to talk about and do that are good. Some are even great. But even some of the good things and the great things may not be the constitutionally necessary things we must do while we're here. I think the most important thing we can do is just like that first grader. We have to go back to school. That's what it really comes down to.
Our single greatest responsibility is not necessarily to go back to our constituents with some prize expenditure for the district as much as it is to go back to school in every one of those 310 districts, making sure the kids of Arkansas are going to have a better education next year than they got this year because of what we did in this room and in the one down the hall. There are some great things we'll talk about and do, but I'm not sure that they're as important as getting back to school.
Highways are great. We have 16,800 miles of state-controlled highways. They're good. Some of them are great. Some of them are going to get better. Some of them need to get a whole lot better. But there's nothing in the Constitution that obligates us to build a road.
Social services are wonderful. I don't think anybody here would deny that some of the best work we do is to make sure kids aren't abused, that nursing home patients are treated with respect, dignity and care. Certainly we want to make sure a child who is somehow unable to cope with the normal systems has a place where he or she can be placed for correction, hopefully to avoid a long-term adult prison sentence.
We all want to see things like the various enterprises we engage in in terms of social services. They are involved and helpful. Many of you will take strong stands for them. As important as they are, I just want to remind you there is nothing in the Constitution that requires us do those things. We do them because they're good and great and helpful and meaningful.
Clean water? We're all for that. But the Constitution doesn't require us to make that the highest priority. We'll make it a priority because we love our state. We'll make sure we have clean water and clean air.
We don't have a constitutional mandate to have state parks. There's no one who loves our park system more than I do, no one who is a greater advocate of tourism than me. I diligently campaigned for the one-eighth cent tax out of a deep conviction that the Natural State ought to be cared for because those of us who are the citizens are the stewards. If we don't take care of it, nobody else will. Many of you joined us, and we are seeing the wonderful results of that. But as important as that is to me personally and as important as that is to all of us collectively, let us never think that that is a constitutional responsibility that exceeds others. Regulation of industry? It's important to make sure our citizens have free and fair commerce, but it's not mandated in the Constitution.
There's higher education, which I hope we can find more money for. I want to make sure every student in this state who graduates from high school can access a college whether it's a two-year, four-year or technical school. We need to ensure every student has more education to be ready for the workforce. But as important as that is, and who can argue that it isn't, it's not mandated in the Constitution that we do it.
We may have tighter budgets, but we are elected to determine the priorities. And if we go back to our basic constitutional responsibility, let us not forget that the single thing that exceeds all the other responsibilities we have is to provide for that free, equitable and adequate public education for students through the 12th grade.
That's why today I come to you with a recommendation. I would recommend that we set for ourselves as the highest priority of this 83rd General Assembly the task of raising teacher salaries in this state so that they are commensurate with what we are asking these men and women to do. Let's raise those salaries over the course of the biennium by $3,000, recognizing that's not enough and it's not the finish line but it's a good starting point.
If we don't raise those salaries at least by that kind of money, we are going to be further and further behind not only in our region but in our nation as it comes to recruiting and retaining the best and brightest talent to go into our classrooms and do not only what we would probably agree is the most important task but what our Constitution dictates is our most important task, that to which we have all taken the oath.
So ladies and gentlemen of this General Assembly, I would suggest that because of the pressing need, we agree there is no greater priority than the raising of those salaries. We're experiencing a shortage of teachers. Frankly, there's no shortage of politicians. Most all of us have opponents when we run. Some of you lucky ones don't, but most of us have several along the way. So there's no shortage of people wanting our jobs.
But there is a shortage of people wanting the job of walking into that classroom and instructing those 450,000 kids every day. That's why we have to get back to school. And, by the way, we're going to have to pay them more than apples. Those folks deserve and we must give them real dollars they can spend.
Does that mean it's the only thing we're going to do the whole time we're here? Of course not. You're going to see in our recommendations that we propose a major emphasis on technology, including the establishment of a chief information officer for the state and resources that will help us build a strong technology infrastructure so high-speed connectivity is accessible to every Arkansan, providing the backbone for recruiting high-tech businesses to our state.
But I want to tell you right now the key to good technology is making sure we have kids coming out of our schools who can run the systems we build. And without decent education, which is going to require good teachers, we can spend all the money in the world building a technology infrastructure but we won't have the people to run it.
Economic development? Of course we are for that. We will have initiatives we will propose, as you will. But there is no one piece of economic development more important than making sure there is an educated workforce that can read, can think and can go to the job and be ready to be trained. So it's back to school if we're really serious about economic development.
You're also going to see from us proposals for a Delta initiative. Some of that will relate to using the tobacco funds for the Delta Health Education Centers, which will be an extraordinary benefit to some of our most under-served citizens in the Arkansas Delta. You'll see a minority hypertension and stroke prevention program, which in the long term will save money by making sure we don't have the kind of catastrophic health issues among so many of our minority citizens. I hope you'll join in helping us pass those Delta initiatives.
But frankly, as the very underpinning of all the Delta initiatives, it goes back to school. The Teach for America program, which we will support, is a very important component of the Delta initiative. The fact is that no matter what we do, without strong schools in the Delta and strong teachers in the Delta that give a good education to every kid, regardless of how much money his parents have or whether they are married or single or black or white or Hispanic or Asian, we will never see our children reach their full potential.
We will propose in this session that this General Assembly do something I hope won't be controversial but will be a matter of conviction for all of us. That is to provide for every person who's contemplating the termination of her child during pregnancy that she has information, knowing fully and completely the procedure that is taking place and what it will mean. Commonly called the woman's right-to-know legislation, it really goes back to school, back to educating people.
I'm pro life, and I think many of you are. But I know not everyone agrees with me on that particular topic, and I respect that. I'll probably never change my conviction on that, and some of you won't change yours. But in this day in which we talk about choice and the importance of it, surely we can agree that if under the Supreme Court choice is mandated, that choice should be as educated a choice as is humanly possible.
That's what this particular measure will provide. We'll ask for drug courts to be expanded because it makes more sense to treat people with a drug problem rather than simply incarcerating them and putting them in a place where their problems are not dealt with. That's one of our initiatives. But it too comes back to school, making sure people have the right information on what's happening to them.
We'll propose initiatives in the area of divorce reform, hoping to see that people will have the option in this state of a covenant marriage where they can have more information. Back to school, if you will, making a deeper commitment. It will be their option. Shouldn't we give people the option of making that marriage vow even stronger?
There will be other initiatives. We will ask you to take a look at making our boards and commissions uniform in terms of the time served. There's something that needs to be changed with a system where those of us who appoint and those of you who confirm are sometimes serving less time because of term limits than the people who are appointed. There ought to be uniformity so the length of time a person serves in an appointed position does not exceed that of the person who did the appointing or did the confirming. We will ask you for your support.
As for general improvement funds, there will probably be few of them this year, maybe less for us to fight over. I would ask that because there may be less, let's focus on the things that are really the state's responsibilities and not those things that would better be handled by city and county governments.
There will always be the temptation to do good things, better things. But I hope we can avoid all of the temptations to do anything other than focusing upon the best thing and what the Constitution says is the most important thing. And that's getting back to school.
Will it cost us? Of course it will. We're proposing a cost, but we're proposing a balanced budget. We think we can do it or we wouldn't have put it out there for you. I think the reason it's important is because for far too long too many of our citizens have lived in poverty, a poverty that trapped them and their children in a cycle they never seemed to break out of. And the one thing that gives them hope, the one thing that unlocks them from that trap of impoverishment, is the opportunity to have access to an education that will open the world to them.
Studies have shown that three things will ensure a child can grow up with a 90 percent likelihood of never spending an adult day of his or her life in poverty. They're simple things. No. 1, finish high school. No. 2, get a job and keep the job until a better job comes along. No. 3, marry, stay married and wait until after you are 20 years old to have a child. Simple stuff, isn't it? But it all starts with getting back to school and making sure everyone is able to finish.
When I went back to school almost 40 years ago, I have to confess to you I had rather ragged clothes. My parents would take me in an old car I wasn't very proud of. Sometimes I would ask them to drop me off a block away from school so the other kids didn't have to see what I was riding in. I didn't have the nicest clothes, and I lived in a very modest rent house for which my parents scraped enough to pay the rent month by month. I didn't grow up much differently than many of you. Some of you came up in the same way.
I remember going to school in my jeans with the tears and the shoes that sometimes would get a little ragged around the edges by the end of the semester. I always admired my schoolteachers. I admired them because unlike anyone in my family, they all had college degrees. I thought that was pretty special.
You know what? In those days, back in Hope, most of the schoolteachers drove pretty nice cars. They weren't luxury cars, but they were nicer than the ones I had ridden in. And they had nicer clothes. Mine were clean, just a little ragged. Theirs looked nice. I always thought I might one day get a good education, go to college and maybe be a teacher. That's the main adult role model many of us had. I realized that if I really worked at this, some day I might have a nicer car. I might not live in a rent house that I didn't want friends to spend the night at because I was embarrassed where I lived. And maybe I would have nice clothes that don't have the patches in the knees of the jeans by April, those jeans you then cut off in the summer and used as shorts.
You know, many of us grew up at a time when the teachers were the ones we looked up to. In most cases, they weren't the ragged ones. You know what breaks my heart today? Go to the typical campus and notice that the kids are driving better cars than the teachers. And the kids are the ones wearing the label clothing. The teachers are the ones who are having to get by with the discount store versions.
I want to tell you, if there's one thing we ought to do in this state, it's to determine that the next generation of kids growing up will look at their teachers and say, "Now there's somebody I'd like to be like." Not just because of the income they have, the car they drive or the clothes they wear but more importantly that our kids would say, "I want to be like that because the work they do is the single most important work we will ever find."
My friends and colleagues in government, it is more than our legislative agenda. It is more than just a budget priority. It is our constitutional duty to get back to school.
Thank you very much.