West Virginia State of the State Address 2000

 

CHARLESTON, West Virginia  - Jan. 12 - Following is the text of Gov. Cecil Underwood's 2000 State of the State Address:

Twelve days ago, January 1, 2000 -- the first day of the new millennium -- came and went. The lights did not go out, nor did the heat go off. Planes did not fall from the sky. Except for a pause at midnight, the trains ran on time. Automatic tellers dispensed money, provided you had some in the bank. Television broadcast around the clock, telephones rang and computers hummed.

In sum, it was business as usual. The prophets of gloom and doom were wrong. So it is, my friends, with West Virginia. The prophets of gloom and doom are wrong. The state of the state is we are on our feet and ready, willing and able to do the work of the 21st century, starting now.

While the world did not come to an end a few days ago, much has happened, whether measured by a century, a decade, a year or even a month. Some things are better, some things are worse and some are simply different. The constant is change, and the challenge is to manage change.

Today we are managing change in West Virginia.

We are managing the change to a new economy, one less concentrated in manufacturing and mining and more focused on services and high technology. The new economy is healthy in spite of clouds on the horizon. I repeat, the new economy is healthy.

Our unemployment rate, though higher than the national average, is the lowest in more than 20 years. The December rate was less than 6 percent, the lowest since we began keeping the current records. From 1997 through 1999, we brought $2.5 billion in new investment to West Virginia -- investment in 45 of the 55 counties. We have gained 26,000 new jobs, according to the official numbers of the Bureau of Employment Programs, and the economy is still growing.

The job mix tells the real story of our economic achievement. In the past three years, some 5,000 mining jobs disappeared, half of them in 1999. To offset this loss and post record gains, employers created more than 31,000 new jobs in other sectors. This mirrors the changes sweeping the U.S. economy. Our outlook today would be very different had there been no growth in other sectors and had the erosion of mining jobs been even greater.

Clearly we must continue to diversify the economy. I am committing money for a new strategic study of opportunities to diversify and asking private companies to contribute as well. To accelerate the process, I propose to hold an economic summit this summer to consider "Changing Opportunities for West Virginia." We must act in concert to improve our environment for business development -- that is what the competition does -- and the summit will be attended by leaders from business, labor, education, government and community organizations.

I have been labeled a business governor, and unabashedly I am ... if, by business, you mean job growth and the roads, schools and services to sustain the economy and a vital population. On many occasions during the past three years, I have stood shoulder to shoulder with steelworkers, coal miners and other working West Virginians and their families when their jobs have been threatened by outside forces. I make no apology for this stand. I firmly believe that economic development is the foundation for the quality of life we want for ourselves and our children.

We must build on our strengths. We have a first-rate development effort here and abroad, and I want to pay tribute to these professionals who, along with motivated local citizens and leaders, attract the new jobs to West Virginia. My budget for fiscal 2001 contains additional money for their work and for economic development assistance.

Tomorrow we will see a sterling example of our team approach when one of America's leading technology companies announces that it is locating in Cabell County. This example is multiplied many times throughout the state for businesses large and small.

Small businesses employ one-third of the state's work force, and recently we were honored for our program to recognize their contribution. I propose to augment this effort with a new Millennium Business Recognition Program for small businesses in operation for 25 years. In addition, I will introduce legislation to reduce the tax-filing burden for small businesses.

In West Virginia, our work force is a signal strength. When I ask new employers why they locate or expand here, the quality of West Virginia workers is always the top of the list. To build on this strength, we are taking steps to ensure that all West Virginians have the means to thrive in the labor market of today and tomorrow.

Since 1997, the Governor's Guaranteed Work Force Program trained 53,000 workers. We introduced Jobs for West Virginia Graduates on a pilot basis to help at-risk high school seniors finish school and find work. My proposed budget includes $780,000 to take this program into each county.

Going forward, we will take full advantage of the enhanced training opportunities provided by the Federal Workforce Investment Act of 1998. Jim Jeffers will move from the Division of Rehabilitation Services to be my chief work force officer, ensuring that the structures are in place to provide for greater private participation and for one-stop service for employers and employees alike.

Given training and economic opportunity, the work ethic of our people will take them far. I cannot emphasize too strongly the importance of attitude to economic success the attitude of individual workers and the attitude of citizens toward public policy.

If there is one area where West Virginia stumbles, it is our failure to embrace and articulate a constructive value system. Instead, some of the most vocal in our state are the most cynical and subversive, shooting themselves -- and us -- in the foot. I am not suggesting that we gild the lily or wear rose-colored glasses, but in the words of the old song we should "accentuate the positive." That is the purpose of our West Virginia Celebration 2000.

The fact is we are doing the right things right in many ways. For starters, we are managing the change to strengthen families and provide greater security for our children through our program, Children First: for West Virginia's Future.

This focuses on early intervention, before family problems become family crises. We have expanded the number of community-based Family Resource Networks to serve every county. Where natural families are not viable, we have increased both adoptions and the number of foster families.

Hovah has encouraged an increase in the number of Starting Point Centers to help people navigate the maze of services available for children and families. The centers have been so successful that I propose to add more. By helping parents and caregivers use the available services wisely, we enhance their efforts to maintain stability in their homes.

To improve safety, I started Operation Safe Schools prior to Columbine, and to date it has trained more than 13,500 school personnel to detect and handle potential emergencies. In addition, we offered to finance help lines in every county.

To address domestic violence, I propose to extend the Family Violence Coordinating Council and support its efforts to set up a State Police hotline and run a statewide awareness campaign. By Executive Order, I will ensure that computers in public schools, libraries and state offices cannot be used to access pornography. I also will introduce legislation to prohibit the distribution of pornography to West Virginia children.

West Virginia ranks first among the states in providing day-care services to children in low-income families. We are one of only two states to provide school-clothing vouchers, and I have increased their number and amount for the first time in more than a decade. We initiated the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in 1998 and have enrolled more than 9,000 children.

Overall, our college-going rate has jumped from 47 to 53 percent since 1996, and I am convinced the gains are due in part to our program of Higher Education Student Grants. Last year I proposed that, over a two-year period, we fully fund this grant program for the first time. The budget includes $7.6 million of lottery funds to reach this goal. When we do, 100 percent of the eligible applicants will receive three-quarters of their college costs.

Other assistance is available as well. For example, Workers' Compensation, in conjunction with organized labor, has launched a scholarship program for children whose parents have been killed or permanently disabled in workplace accidents.

Educare -- education in the first months and years of life -- is the latest thrust in child care, and I propose to run a $1 million pilot effort in West Virginia. The Governor's Cabinet on Children and Families, distinguished for its work at the state level on Colin Powell's Americas Promise program, will assume responsibility for Educare.

I propose to spend $5 million of the tobacco settlement for a tobacco prevention program designed by the Bureau for Public Health. In addition, I propose -- again -- that West Virginia tax smokeless tobacco as a deterrent to its use. Our state is number one in the per-capita use of smokeless tobacco, and, while I am proud to head many lists, I would rather not top that one.

I am proud to top, for the fourth year running, the list of states assessed for educational quality by Education Week magazine. This is testament that in West Virginia we are managing the change to a leading-edge public school system.

Education Week also described the opening of a time capsule last month, filled with predictions of the future of education made by the nations governors. This was at the end of my first term, and my vision anticipated developments in West Virginia.

The curriculum would be more flexible, I predicted, and teachers more open to change. The proposed budget includes the third-year salary increase for professional educators and service personnel promised three years ago. This brings the total to $2,268 per school employee. Public employees will receive the third-year increase as well.

I predicted that education would be a lifelong process, and this is the case in our homes, through our public schools and libraries, in the workplace and in our higher education system. I commend the Legislature for its constant interest in higher education and for the research completed this year.

I want to see a seamless educational process that acquaints youth with career opportunities at a very early age. It also must demand high standards of performance and accommodate changes in direction without penalties. By focusing on higher education as a total system, our universities can emphasize research and professional study; our four-year colleges, a well-rounded liberal arts foundation; and our community colleges and technical centers, associate and technical degrees. Such an approach should improve the college-going rate and reward institutions on performance. It also should diminish institutional competition and use the assets of our private colleges.

Further, I predicted that technology would overcome the barriers to communication, particularly for isolated rural schools. I had television in mind, but telecommunications and the Internet have done the job. As a result of our broadband network, students are beginning to use the new technology for distance learning. Truly the world is at their fingertips.

Technology is the key to the 21st century. In West Virginia, we are managing the change to a state that is technically state of the art.

The Office of Technology was created to promote technology in government and to expand its use throughout the state. We introduced electronic tax filing, one-stop business registration and the one-stop, digitized driver's license. This year, the Bureau of Employment Programs will begin to move to a virtually paperless office, using document imaging and the Internet.

State agencies spent $162 million on information technology in fiscal 1999. I propose to consolidate these activities into a central information system, which could reduce our costs by as much as 10 percent. The savings in turn could fund new technology investments, fulfilling my goal that the office will pay its way. In the same vein, we are looking at central support services for our colleges and universities to free money for instruction.

Overall, our state is connected. All public schools, universities, colleges and libraries now have Internet access and, in partnership with Microsoft, computer labs have been established in senior centers. This year, for the first time, most of our citizens may file federal and West Virginia tax returns electronically at their local library free of charge. Taxpayers will find this more convenient, less costly and quicker to receive refunds.

My SUCCESS program brought computers to more than 300 secondary schools and will provide every West Virginia graduate with 13 years of experience with electronic technology. SUCCESS builds on the earlier program for grades K through 6, which I propose to upgrade with new hardware and software. In 1998, we introduced portable laptop wireless computers into Hundred High School in Wetzel County, and I propose to expand this program to classes in four other counties.

West Virginia 2001, the public-private partnership between the state and Bell Atlantic, is bringing a high-speed, broadband telecommunications network to the state. In addition to applications in education, connections into every county courthouse by midyear will make possible statewide "courtrooms of the future." Soon all state offices will be connected to each other and with the public. This will save money, increase public safety and improve services, giving West Virginians more direct access to their government.

To improve the network, I plan to authorize the installation of fiber-optic cable in the Interstate and Appalachian corridor rights-of-way. This will reduce our costs, allow for expansion and connect us digitally with the entire East Coast.

Technology has enormous potential as an engine of job creation, utilizing our institutions and our resources. Currently we offer tax incentives for businesses to apply technology to create new jobs. Two programs -- Software Valley and Industries of the Future -- promote the use of new technologies to improve existing basic industries and preserve traditional jobs. I propose that tax incentives be offered for businesses to apply technology to save existing jobs.

Particularly vulnerable are coal and steel. The change to a new economy does not mean abandoning our long-standing industrial partners. At stake are individual jobs, the fate of important regions of West Virginia and indeed the vitality of the state itself. Marshall University's Economic Review recently concluded: "First, West Virginia's coal mining industry is increasingly fragile as it competes with both coal from other regions of the country and with other fuel sources. Second, coal-producing counties and the state as a whole are not currently in a position to fully replace the economic activity that the coal industry generates."

These industries tap our natural resources, and in West Virginia we are managing the change to sustainable development, balancing economic activity and environmental protection. As part of this effort, I request the state Board of Education to include in our public school curriculum a unit of comprehensive, balanced environmental education that reflects the positions of all parties. In this day and age, we are all environmentalists, though we may honestly disagree where to draw the line.

I for one feel that we should use our resources for the good of our citizens. We are developing a value-added wood products industry to create West Virginia jobs from West Virginia timber. Next month, the directors of a new public-private consortium to train West Virginia workers for the wood industry will meet for the first time. The Polymer Alliance Zone, Chemical Alliance Zone and Steel Advisory Council all serve to add value and find new customers for these basic industries.

Coal remains our most abundant resource, though one with an uncertain future. Currently the industry is mired in litigation, but I am hopeful that the issues can be successfully resolved. The Division of Environmental Protection is working to this end, as are people of good will on all sides. We must not turn our back on coal miners, their families and the many small businesses they support.

At the same time, the DEP is upgrading the permitting process and has made real progress in air quality and waste management. Recognizing this, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this year will delegate primary responsibility to the state for waste programs.

Among the waste problems are piles of discarded tires that dot our landscape -- 12 million at last count and growing at the rate of more than 2.5 million tires a year. They are a blight and a hazard, the breeding ground for mosquitoes and vermin and a fire threat. I propose to clean up these dangerous eyesores and to fund this effort through an environmental fee of $5 on motor vehicle titles.

Transportation is part of our essential infrastructure, the foundation of a modern state. In West Virginia we are managing the change to a world-class transportation system that will be our ticket in the new century.

Our strategy has been three fold with respect to roads: to accelerate construction, to break bottlenecks on long-standing projects and to capture orphan roads into the system. You approved my request for additional road bonds, and we increased construction starts to $750 million last year, an all-time record. Qualified West Virginia firms now do highway design, which creates in-state engineering jobs.

Statewide, we paved 5,300 miles of road, renewed 240 posted bridges and adopted orphan roads that serve 15,000 people. To keep up the pace, I request authority to sell an additional $110 million in road bonds.

The Federal Highway Administration today signed off on the Coalfields Expressway, allowing final design to proceed. In that same spirit, I have instructed the Department of Transportation to conclude as soon as possible the mediation process involving Corridor H.

These measures will have a positive impact on our lives and our families, which are changing rapidly and, in some cases, bewilderingly. We are older and more diverse. More of us are working, some for the first time.

In West Virginia, we are managing the change to an older population. Three years ago we created the Bureau of Senior Services to recognize the experience and value of older West Virginians. We have invested more than $8 million in renovating and building senior centers throughout the state. I propose to focus our future investment on programs and, further, to double the lottery funds dedicated to LIFE, the Legislative Initiative for the Elderly. The budget also includes funds to eliminate the waiting lists of eligible seniors who need in-home services.

To make up for the failure of Congress to reauthorize the Older Americans Act, I propose an Older West Virginians Act that reaffirms out commitment to the fastest-growing segment of our population.

Any poll of our seniors would find the cost of prescription drugs at the top of their concerns. This is not strictly a state issue but another national problem that, up to now, Congress has failed to address. I will create a Task Force on Prescription Drugs to determine what the state can do to mobilize all resources to help seniors pay for their prescriptions.

Many of our seniors receive veterans services. As promised, we improved the Veterans Home in Barboursville, and I will create a task force to plan for building one or more nursing homes for veterans. Also, I am requesting that the Legislature place a constitutional amendment on the ballot to exempt veteran pensions from the state income tax.

In West Virginia, we are managing the change from welfare to the work force. Our welfare rolls have been cut by 60 percent, with a corresponding decline in expenditures. We have increased funding for transportation, child care, dental services and eye care to make the transition to the economic mainstream more attainable, including self employment. Most of the jobs are in the private sector, but I would be remiss not to mention the West Virginia Courtesy Patrol, which I renewed. I get letters, stacks of letters every week, from people helped by the patrol, which is staffed by former welfare recipients.

As a result of our success in improving the job entry rate, we received a $2.5 million high-performance bonus from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The money will be used to help former welfare recipients retain and advance in their jobs.

In West Virginia, we are managing the change to a more diverse population and work force. In the past decade, women entered the work force in increasing numbers and accounted for most of the growth. Today, they make up almost half of the total force. I have appointed many women to executive positions in state government, which has improved our national ranking in this respect.

Minorities are a small but important percentage of our population, and their numbers are increasing. International industries and nationalities that 10 years ago were dots on a paper globe today are down the block or in a neighboring town. We all benefit economically and socially from their being here. Shortly after taking office, I launched an initiative, One West Virginia for the 21st Century, to create a statewide atmosphere of racial harmony and tolerance. I plan this year to convene a public forum on emerging employment issues, including minority concerns.

Some of my proposals call for new, if modest, public investment. The budget I will submit totals $2.7 billion, up slightly from the previous year. The revenue estimate for fiscal 2001 is also $2.7 billion, including revenue from the tobacco settlement and from the proposed smokeless tobacco tax. While we expect some additional money from the tobacco settlement, this leaves little wiggle room at a time of great economic uncertainty. The bang of a gavel in a courtroom could strip millions from our revenues. Accordingly, I have asked department heads to hold back their expenditures for the current fiscal year by 3 percent and let the revenue picture unfold as we approach the new fiscal year.

Let me note that the Workers' Compensation Division has completed the amnesty program authorized last year by the Legislature and received 2,600 applications, most of them from small businesses. Commissioner Vieweg collected $11 million in cash and signed payment agreements for an additional $25 million, bringing the total to $36 million.

I continue to believe that fundamental tax reform would benefit the average West Virginia taxpayer and make the state a more attractive place to invest and live. At the dawn of the 21st century, we can no longer rely on a 19th century tax system to fund essential services. Responding to concerns raised in some quarters, I continue to take tax reform one step at a time. Now I ask for authority for informational returns so that credible data will be available in the future.

I have stepped up our search for savings, short term and long term. In West Virginia, we are managing the change to better, not bigger government. We have arrested the growth of government in most areas except public safety and corrections. In the past three years, we added 85 new state troopers to the force, but this year the superintendent requested additional overtime pay in lieu of additional troopers. For the same money, we get the services of more experienced troopers. The budget also includes a new $10 million revolving loan fund for volunteer fire departments to upgrade their facilities and equipment.

Most state departments have reduced their rolls -- notably the Division of Highways by 10 percent -- and other departments have increased the morale and professionalism of their staff, turning out more effective, courteous work.

Over a decade ago, the senior management structure of state government was overhauled, creating a cabinet structure. Since that time, most organizations have gone in the other direction, flattening their structures to include less, not more, levels of management. I propose we move in that direction.

First, the positions of secretary of Transportation and commissioner of Highways would be combined. Second, the position of secretary of Tax and Revenue and state tax commissioner would be combined. Third, the executive director of the West Virginia Development Office would assume the duties of secretary of Commerce.

In no way should this move be interpreted as a reflection on the individuals who occupy these positions. They have served the people of West Virginia well. Rather, it is part of my program to simplify and trim government, making it more effective, less expensive and less intrusive.

The budget includes an additional $21 million to fund the increase for the Public Employees Insurance Agency. This will bring the total cost of the program to more than 400 million in state dollars. Since our program was established, the standards for benefits have changed, and we have not kept pace. Clearly we cannot continue on the present course. For the future, I propose that we offer a more competitive benefit for new hires, which will provide substantial savings without changing the rules for older service employees.

Benefits, including pensions, are a major expense. I propose two actions, the first to help older retirees by raising the minimum retirement benefit for career public employees. The second is to refinance our existing pension liabilities of $4 billion by issuing pension obligation bonds, just as families refinance their mortgages to consolidate debts and save money. This will guarantee funding of the retirement system and, depending on the rate, is estimated to save $5 million to $30 million a year over the life of the bonds.

Beyond the executive branch, I propose that we strengthen public confidence in our judiciary by providing for the nonpartisan election of Supreme Court justices. I will introduce legislation to accomplish this and request your early consideration. I also will propose the election of all justices in a manner that promotes the principle of majority rule. Our justices have the final power to decide grave questions of public policy that affect the daily lives and fortunes of us all, and we should do what we can to remove any stain of political prejudice from the process of selecting these high officials.

Change: That is our future. In West Virginia, we are managing change.

We are managing the change to a new economy.

We are managing the change to strengthen families and provide more security for our children.

We are managing the change to a leading-edge public school system.

We are managing the change to a state that is technically state of the art.

We are managing the change to sustainable development, balancing economic activity and environmental protection.

We are managing the change to a world-class transportation system.

We are managing the change to an older population.

We are managing the change from welfare to the work force.

We are managing the change to a more diverse population and work force.

We are managing the change to better, not bigger government.

I have a vision for West Virginia. I believe change should be managed and turned to our advantage. I believe every man and woman should have a job who needs it and is willing to work. I believe every child should have a good family environment and access to a first-class education. I believe every corner of the state should be linked by four-lane highways and by the information superhighway.

My vision did not come out of thin air. It was grounded in the progress we made in the past decade; and it was born from my experience, working in education, in government, in industry and in the volunteer community to turn around the cycles of loss and move our state forward.

My vision will not be realized by going it alone. It requires all of us to pull together, and I would like to acknowledge the key support of members of the Legislature. Together, we created a can do government that made significant progress, often against the odds and in the face of skepticism.

More than two and one-half millennia ago, the Chinese philosopher, Lao-tzu, wrote those famous words, "The journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step." Let me add that our journey of a thousand miles requires us to stay the course and to continue to put one foot in front of the other if we would reach the destination we desire: a West Virginia that is self sufficient and free of contention, with opportunity for all.

Thank you.

 
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