West Virginia State of the State Address 2004

 

CHARLESTON, West Virginia - Jan 14 - Following is the text of Gov. Robert E. Wise's 2004 state of the state address:

Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, Members of the Board of Public Works, Justices of the Supreme Court of Appeals, Members of the Legislature, Senator Jay Rockefeller, Congressman Mollohan, Distinguished Guests and My Fellow West Virginians:

Before we begin the important work of the state, we must remember the thousands of West Virginia men and women in uniform. They are deployed across the world in freedom's cause.

On behalf of every citizen, I thank the men and women who have placed themselves in harm's way on behalf of the United States. Several of those soldiers are with us tonight. Let us recognize a soldier who has made a great sacrifice.

I present to you former Private First Class Jessica Lynch of Palestine, Wirt County.

Two other soldiers with us tonight represent thousands of West Virginians in our armed forces. They are Staff Sergeant Marlon Leftwich with the West Virginia Air National Guard who served in Iraq, and Sergeant 1st Class Benjamin Gentry III with the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Join me in honoring our soldiers like Marlon, Benjamin and Jessica by submitting to the voters this year a constitutional amendment to provide each member of the military who has served or is serving as a result of conflicts in Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan with a cash bonus. Our state has done the same in past wars. We must do the same in this one.

We cannot forget the veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam. In October, we broke ground on a state-of-the-art nursing home facility, the first of its kind in the state.

We have lost several dedicated public servants in the past year. Delegate A. James Manchin, who brought humor, heart and hope with him everywhere he went; from our administration, Tom Keeley, a long-time state and community leader who worked every day to create positive changes; and someone who was beloved by all of us, Senate Sergeant of Arms Tony DeRamio. Please join me in a moment of silence as we remember them.

Every West Virginia citizen knows these are difficult times. People are working harder and longer to make ends meet. Jobs are precious. There is less money available for things we want, and we have to dig deeper for things we must have.

State government is not immune from the national economy. Across the country, states have been in crisis. Many have reduced important education programs. In 21 states, public employees have been subject to furloughs, layoffs and early retirement.

In West Virginia, we have avoided financial disaster. We took a hard look at each year's spending and made difficult choices early. Since 2001, we have reduced spending time and time again, taking hundreds of millions of dollars out of state budgets.

We are showing that taking on tough issues pays off. We have seen the results. That is why we can never go back to status quo.

But this is the hardest year yet. We face a gap of $120 million between what we expect to collect and what we are projected to spend. Several months ago, I asked each state agency -- with no exceptions -- to prepare a budget for 2004-2005 with a 9 percent budget cut.

West Virginia's state employees have been at the forefront of our savings efforts. Our suggestion-box website has been filled with helpful ideas, like that of Andrew Jensen from Workers' Compensation. His office is saving taxpayers $40,000 in postage annually, and is providing our customers better service.

Andrew, please stand and be recognized for your contribution.

Thanks to his work and the hundreds of others across state government, we will not have to make across-the-board cuts in every program.

This year, we will have a budget of $3.2 billion, a figure almost exactly the same as last year. But we can't use yesterday's priorities to allocate future spending. We are balancing our budget mostly by reducing costs. More than two-thirds of the shortfall has been wiped out by targeted spending cuts and only one-third by revenue enhancements.

This budget does not propose any disruptive action like pay cuts, layoffs or furloughs.

As we did last year, we will again exempt state troopers and corrections. And, like last year, I have exempted senior citizens programs from cuts.

Our school budget increases by $39 million, but we must demand sacrifice from the school bureaucracy.

We have protected children's health and our scholarship programs.

As I speak, my office has e-mailed to the House and Senate, a budget that is balanced, that is reasonable and that prepares us well for the future. With this budget, you can not only reduce spending, but also invest in health care, jobs and education.

In the past three years, we have made major strides in improving the health of all West Virginians.

We kept doctors in West Virginia;

We pioneered the drug discount card for seniors;

We won the Patients' Bill of Rights;

We revamped our trauma system;

We returned an additional $32 million to public schools through Medicaid;

We built the first-ever multi-state prescription drug purchasing pool; and

We guaranteed coverage for uninsured women with breast or cervical cancer.

In West Virginia, we take care of our children. We've gone to schools, to swimming pools and to neighborhoods to find uninsured children and sign them up for the Children's Health Insurance Program. More than 94 percent of our kids are covered. We're now the model for other state outreach programs. Because of our success, we now have been awarded nearly 19 million extra federal dollars this year.

A diagnosis of cancer is one of the great fears any family faces. I'd like to welcome a cancer survivor who is with us tonight. David Zimmerman is one of thousands of West Virginians who understands what fighting cancer really means. In 2000, David was diagnosed with colon cancer. After two years of treatment, he remains cancer-free.

David, please stand to be recognized for all you do with the American Cancer Society and to protect all of us.

West Virginia is taking a national role in preventing and curing cancer. We're one of two states that are full partners with C-Change, an organization that brings together researchers, providers, patients and national leaders to conquer cancer. Former President Bush co-chairs the group. With us tonight, is nationally renowned cancer specialist Dr. Marty Murphy, editor of The Oncologist, the world's largest cancer periodical. He and I will host a national meeting of C-Change's business roundtable this year where CEOs of some of this nation's largest companies will develop a gold standard for cancer care.

Helping citizens and businesses obtain health insurance has been a priority of this administration.

Small businesses and others are increasingly unable to find affordable coverage. Tens of thousands of hardworking West Virginians are one illness away from bankruptcy.

|We now lead the nation in covering our children; unfortunately, we are among the last in the nation for insuring adults. Within five years, our goal and commitment must be to reduce the number of working uninsured by 50 percent.

Tonight, I am announcing a partnership between providers, private sector, insurers and government for a small business insurance program for those who are uninsured. I am seeking legislation to authorize PEIA to coordinate this partnership. We provide the insurance with no additional cost to the state. Put it into effect, and we will make health history in West Virginia.

In 31 other states, people who cannot obtain health coverage because of a pre-existing medical condition can join a high-risk pool. Tonight, I am submitting a bill to make this happen.

Tobacco use remains the greatest threat to the health of West Virginians. Last year, we passed the first cigarette tax increase in 25 years. This was the most important health measure passed in a generation. We've seen tough action can get results, but more must be done.

This year, I ask you to add another one cent per cigarette -- just a penny -- and also move the smokeless tobacco tax to 20 percent. These modest increases will continue to discourage smoking and raise $30 million vitally needed to fund the Medicaid program and $6.5 million to double our programs to help smokers quit and teach young people never to start. Some say they don't want to pass another cigarette tax this year, but there is another price to pay if we don't take this action.

Our Medicaid program must be cut at least 10 percent if this increase fails to pass. That means senior citizen programs; that means prescription drugs; that means nursing homes; that means children's care programs; and that means additional costs for other crucial health programs. I ask youdon't let this happen.

It is finally time. We must lower the legal limit for drunk driving to .08 percent, a standard known to save lives. We cannot afford to lose more lives on our roadways, nor the $10 million in federal highway funds we will lose if this bill is not passed. West Virginia is one of only five states without this law. Act now, and we can still regain the $2.6 million we lost last year.

A leader in the fight against drunk driving in West Virginia is with us tonight. Mark Cheeseman and his wife Barbara came to this issue through tragedy, the loss of their son, Steven, in 2002. He was killed by a drunk driver. Mark now leads Berkeley County Mothers Against Drunk Driving. They'll be in the Capitol this session, working with other parents to remind us of the importance of this legislation. Mark, I ask you to stand so we can recognize you for taking your anguish and converting it into action.

There is another subject causing anguish. All terrain vehicles are vital tools for rural landowners, and can provide an exciting ride through scenic parts of our state. But because of the lack of safety measures, the number of ATV-related fatalities in West Virginia continues to climb. Last year, 27 people were killed, including eight children.

At the very least, ATV riders under the age of 18 must wear a helmet; single seat vehicles must have only one occupant; and all riders under the age of 16 must take a state approved safety-training course. In just the first few days of this year, another child has been killed on an ATV. Pass this bill so you know you have done everything you can to keep our children safe.

One of the most difficult challenges we have faced in the past three years has been in building West Virginia's economy during a national and international downturn. There's a profound difference between this economic slowdown and the ones we have experienced in the previous decade. Our economy is more diversified; our people are better educated; and our efforts at economic development are working better. The national slowdown has cost West Virginians thousands of jobs, but, make no mistake, we weathered the past three years better than many states.

During this time, working with new and existing companies, we created almost 11,000 new jobs. With the assistance of Senator Robert C. Byrd and our congressional delegation, we have helped endangered companies retain 5,500 existing jobs, including many of the state's highest-paying manufacturing jobs in the steel industry.

And, while we're talking about steel, let me say directly to my friends in the steel industry -- we're not going to stop fighting for your jobs!

Tonight, I am pleased to announce that the largest job creation package in West Virginia history is now a reality. Just a few hours ago, the economic development grant committee's work was finalized. Here is the document making that happen.

More than $235 million in grants will now be released. This money, combined with more than $500 million in private investment, will be flowing into communities all across our state. The 47 projects that have been on hold for a year and a half will not have to wait another day. We get started tomorrow. Working together, we have put more tools in the job creation toolbox.

We've also secured $100 million in federal venture capital funds; provided West Virginia's first tax increment financing; changed our tax incentives; established the Sunny Day Fund; and offered companies a 100 percent tax credit for innovation. If you've got a book about West Virginia, throw it out. It's obsolete.

We've also reformed the bankrupt Workers' Compensation system. Injured workers will get their checks, and we're controlling costs to make West Virginia more attractive to businesses.

Let me be clear. We now are able to create jobs that could not have been created three years ago.

The legislation you and I worked on is making a difference. Companies like American Woodmark in Hardy County; PWP Industries in Wood County; Butterfly.net in Berkeley County; Comprosystems in Kanawha County; and Threewide in Monongalia County are investing and creating jobs every day.

We're ready to step forward as the recession ends and investment and jobs begin to pick up around the country. But there are several things we need to do:

We must continue the progress we've made with the Vision Shared initiatives -- a massive undertaking bringing together business, labor and government to find real solutions to our economic problems.

There are three Vision Shared proposals this year -- an improved research and development tax credit; better access to borrowing for companies with innovative ideas; and elimination of the Civil War-era paperwork requirements on corporations we've tried it for 140 years -- it doesn't work.

We must address the problem of West Virginia's Baby Boom Generation. Workers aged 50 to 64 face special challenges when they find themselves without a job, without health care and without a pension. We are going to help our older workers get back on their feet. They have mortgages to pay; they have kids to put through college; and they have health care needs.

We'll tap the skills of this generation to meet the real needs of West Virginia in the 21st century and provide accelerated retraining to move them into careers where we have shortages, including nursing, technology and aviation.

There are thousands of West Virginians between the ages of 50 and 64 who suddenly find the security they have been working for is threatened. We are preparing a report to be a blueprint for assisting this important part of our population.

I also am presenting a bill to allow public-private partnerships in financing transportation and infrastructure projects that are needed across the state. This will allow the greatest flexibility in developing the infrastructure needed to attract jobs and industries.

Included in this budget are two measures that will increase state revenues without increasing tax rates.

We must collect unpaid taxes, because each dollar we don't collect is a dollar other taxpayers have to make up. I'm proposing a one-time, 60-day tax amnesty period. If unpaid taxes are submitted during this period, all penalties will be waived and the taxpayer will be charged only half the amount of interest owed. The $6 to $10 million we will collect will be used to pay repairs for the State Capitol -- the people's house -- and one of our most treasured tourist attractions.

We also are going to join several other states that will break from the federal government by continuing to collect the tax on estates that are worth more than $1 million. Andrea Ramezan Jackson, a student at the West Virginia University College of Law, made this suggestion, and it's a good one. It will affect only the top 1 percent of all estates and will keep us from having to put $60 million in additional taxes on working families over the next five years.

Every West Virginian should have the opportunity to participate in jobs, in education and in community life. For the past several years, our state disabilities liaison, Penney Hall, has been working every day to ensure access for all West Virginians. Penney, thank you for all you are doing. We want to strengthen your efforts.

Tonight, to continue our commitment to the Americans with Disabilities Act, I am proposing legislation to create a permanent position in state government for an ADA Coordinator.

We continue our commitment to worker safety and, despite the budget shortfall, we will not cut funding that could help save lives in our coal mines. We will continue efforts to strengthen our state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training to investigate accidents and enforce safety regulation. We will not step back in this area. We owe it to the thousands of mineworkers who died in the past century and the far too many who died this past year.

The past three years have seen a revolution in education in West Virginia. We're doing more than ever before to give our children a quality education. Last week, Education Week Magazine ranked West Virginia as one of the top performers in the country for accountability and standards for our schools, teacher quality and school safety.

Earlier today, I was honored -- along with other state leaders -- to meet with Melinda Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She was here to award West Virginia libraries a grant to assist with technology access. In 1997, only half of West Virginia libraries had Internet access. Today, all of our libraries give citizens access. I look forward to working with Mrs. Gates and the Gates Foundation in the future.

We're making other gains too:

Our students are in school -- a real 180 days.

Safe Schools Helpline is now staffed 24 hours a day.

This administration has improved teacher salaries despite the ongoing budget crisis.

We've rewarded our veteran teachers by lifting the cap on increment pay for teachers with more than 29 years of service.

I'd like you to meet one of West Virginia's finest teachers. A role model for our students, he is a computer science teacher from John Marshall High School. He believes teaching is the greatest job in the world.

He said when you see students teaching other students something you taught them, you realize the ripple effect your lessons will have and the number of people you can reach.

On behalf of the entire state and all parents, I want to thank our West Virginia Teacher of the Year for what he is doing every day.

Once again, the Toyota Motor Corporation, with the help of David Copenhaver, is presenting a new Toyota Sienna. Both the engine and transmission were made just 30 minutes away in Putnam County by West Virginia workers. Also tonight, Fred Early of Blue Cross and Blue Shield will present our teacher with a $5,000 check.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present West Virginia's Teacher of the Year, David Soltesz, of Beech Bottom, West Virginia.

Teachers like David are the key to West Virginia's future. And we must make it easier to do their jobs; we must recognize them for outstanding performance; and we must protect their safety.

Therefore, I am asking the Legislature to pass the Teacher Empowerment Act. It will reduce the paperwork required of teachers, guidance counselors and school administrators. And we will create a statewide system of tracking dangerous students so they can't simply enroll in another school after they have been expelled. Teachers who achieve the much-coveted national certification will now receive a bonus of $3,500 -- a $1,000 increase. We'll be awarding this bonus to a record number of teachers this year -- 151 of them -- six times as many as there were in 2000.

The state of West Virginia has reached out to parents in the past several years by offering a break on sales tax. Last year, these parents saved close to $2 million on back-to-school purchases. Once again, I will ask the Legislature to approve a Sales Tax Holiday for one of the most expensive times of the year.

We've doubled the amount of funding to build more 21st century schools; but, as we build new schools, we must preserve rural and small-town schools and sustain the contributions they make to their communities. We also must ensure that every student receives a high-quality education.

I am introducing a bill making school construction funds more accessible to small schools and rural districts. Additional legislation also will set new, lower limits on the time students must travel on buses going to and from school.

You and I both know that no elementary student should ride a bus more than 30 minutes one-way to school.

We must continue to invest in higher education.

I worked with our college and university presidents in developing this year's budget. With a combination of one-time payments and reallocations, we were able to find the resources to fund ongoing programs. Instead of having a 9 percent cut, higher education will only have a 2.5 percent cut. We are going to support the higher education bond issue to create classrooms and other facilities needed for the next generation of students.

Our higher education institutions are great reservoirs of talent. They know how to get things done, but often are bound by outdated regulations and restrictions. If we expect them to do more with less, and we do, we must cut some of these chains.

I have introduced legislation to give colleges and universities the freedom to find their own solutions to problems. Higher education institutions cannot look the same in five years. We'll judge them on their success B- not on how well they follow bureaucratic guidelines.

Our state colleges are changing, too, in their efforts to better serve West Virginia students. The Higher Education Policy Commission has determined that West Virginia State, Concord, Fairmont State and Shepherd qualify to be state universities.

As part of my legislative package, I am requesting that you recognize these institutions' achievements by bestowing university status on them.

In the past three years, our state's universities have vastly expanded their capabilities to do research. Because of their new strength, they have received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal research funding. In biometrics, in cancer research and in energy research, West Virginia is leading the way. In neurosciences, with the help of Senator Jay Rockefeller, we soon will be the world leader in developing new strategies and treatments for memory disorders. But that is not enough.

We must create a landmark research program to allow West Virginia to compete for jobs in industries in the future. Our universities need a steady dependable revenue stream of research funds, and it needs to be more than one year. We have to show we are serious about research.

Tonight, I am urging you to establish such a fund. We will start with an additional $10 million; expand the Research Challenge Grant Program; hire top-quality faculty and researchers; purchase cutting-edge equipment; and create research opportunities for students.

We will support research that is directly tied to West Virginia's economic development. At least 25 percent of it will be earmarked for energy research.

I also am proposing legislation to create a Distinguished Graduate Student Fellowship Program to keep more of our outstanding undergraduates in state and attract more graduate students from other states.

We have steadily increased our investment in student financial aid for postsecondary education. This budget continues that investment. In 2001, our state awarded $16.5 million in student aid. By next year, that total will climb to $50 million.

The PROMISE Scholarship has been a major part of this investment, but we also have made substantial increases to the Higher Education Grant Program and the Higher Education Adult Part-time Student Program. Working together, these programs represent a combination of financial aid strategies with one common goal: to increase access to college for West Virginians.

Please join me in greeting two PROMISE scholars in the Chamber tonight who represent the 6,300 students in college -- thanks to the PROMISE Scholarship and their hard-work, good grades and positive attitudes.

Amber Bishop from Fayette County, a student at West Virginia University; and Corey Isner from Jackson County, a student at the University of Charleston. They are making a difference. Please stand to be recognized.

Corey's mother, Bea Isner, is a guidance counselor in Jackson County. She's seen the changes PROMISE has made in her school and in Corey's classmates. More than 90 percent of those who earned a PROMISE Scholarship have accepted it and entered a West Virginia college. For the first time in a long time, the number of students going out of state has declined and our state colleges and universities have record-high enrollments.

One of the guiding principles of this administration is that energy and economic development are not the enemies of the environment. I have made environmental protection a priority.

We are adding thousands of acres of recreational land for hunters, fishermen, hikers and bikers to enjoy, including Blackwater Falls State Park, Cheat Canyon, Snake Hill and Nathaniel Mountain Wildlife Management areas.

We reclaimed almost 10,000 acres of abandoned mine sites.

We restored nearly 300 miles of acid-damaged streams to support native trout fisheries.

We worked with the industry and found ways to expedite the permit process for mining without relaxing environmental protections.

We must not lower our expectations of the coal industry -- we can mine coal cleanly, without harming our water and land. West Virginia's stronger protections should not be lowered to the minimum federal standard.

We're not done yet.

In the past, we have recognized coal, gas and timber as valuable natural resources; now, we also must count West Virginia's clear pure water as equally precious. Currently, West Virginia does not have the tools or information to properly manage its water resources. Tonight, I am introducing legislation to establish a water usage program giving us information on our supply of clean water and on the industries that use it.

We also must continue to protect the quality of water in our streams and rivers to preserve them for future generations. We must reject any attempt to weaken our water quality rules.

We can no longer bury our head in the sand on the issue of greenhouse gases. To protect the vitality of West Virginia's energy-based economy, we must continue to take a leadership role on climate change issues.

We are taking the first step to understand the effects of greenhouse gases by introducing legislation to require facilities to register their emissions of greenhouse gases. This soon will be required from the federal government. West Virginia needs to be a leader and act now.

We also are going to reward industries that do more than the law requires to keep our air and water clean.

Tourism continues to contribute more each year to jobs and economic development. I propose to strengthen the bond between tourism promotions and economic development promotions. We will continue our successful efforts to attract tourists from across the country and around the world to West Virginia. And we'll do more.

I'm seeking authorization to reorganize the Tourism Promotion Fund to target customers who not only will vacation here, but also will do business here. I also will introduce the West Virginia Tourism Development Act expanding the successful tax increment financing program to promote the development of destination resorts and other world-class tourist facilities.

And West Virginia has just scored another hole-in-one. With us tonight is Tim Benton of the PGA Tour, who is bringing a national golf tournament to the beautiful Pete Dye Course this year.

We all have come to understand the increased need for protection in every community whether it's from crime, terrorism or fraud.

In the past year, we have increased the number of state troopers by 16 percent B the largest increase in any single year in the history of the West Virginia State Police. Two cadet classes graduated in July and are completing their field probationary period. Another class is in training and scheduled to join the force in April. I have directed another class to begin this month.

Retirements, military call-ups and the loss of troopers to higher-paying jurisdictions are putting a strain on all police agencies in West Virginia. Tonight, I am introducing legislation to reduce the retirement age of state troopers from 55 to 50. We have some of the best law enforcement officers in the country. We need to keep them here.

I want to report to you that our Emergency Operations Center was activated seven times, either for disaster or because of a threat to homeland security and managed $94 million in federal and state recovery funds. We've established six regional response teams and created an emergency supply warehouse stocked with essential supplies and ready for immediate distribution.

Working together with this Legislature, we put an end to the illegal video poker business in convenience stores and gas stations. We provided a means to fund hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure and new school construction, and we are sending thousands of high school students on to college.

But in the past year, our roadways and communities have been bombarded by gambling signs.

By executive order, I have removed those signs and now, tonight, I am introducing legislation to make it clear that these signs are never going back up.

The rising costs of home and auto insurance have an impact on all West Virginians. Insurance fraud is a key factor in rising costs. West Virginia is one of only 10 states without an insurance fraud bureau. I am asking you to give West Virginia the authority to catch those who cheat the system and pass along the cost to all of us.

It's also time to protect our citizens from identity theft and other privacy violations. I will present legislation forbidding state agencies from selling or giving away your home telephone number, your address and, most important, your Social Security Number.

Our focus, rightly, is on the immediate future. But we have two important measures on our agenda that will have an impact on future years.

Local government in West Virginia is organized pretty much the way it was founded in 1863. By executive order, I am establishing today a commission to explore what local government should look like in this century. We shouldn't assume the government that met our needs in the 19th century will meet our needs in the 21st century. We also need to take a bold step on long-term debt. Over the past decades, West Virginia has pushed some of its financial obligations on to future generations by creating substantial unfunded liabilities in three of our pension funds. It's time to stop.

Thanks to the Attorney General's work in the national tobacco settlement, our state receives funds each year from the tobacco industry. However, we are seeing a steady decline in the amount coming in each year. We depend on it heavily; yet, it is one court decision away from drying up.

I am asking that we take the opportunity to secure this money in a lump sum and place $137 million to more than double the Medical Trust Fund; to use $348 million to wipe out the unfunded liability within the Trooper A Pension Fund; to use $45 million to eliminate the unfunded liability in the Judges Retirement System, and to use $90 million to significantly reduce the unfunded liability in Workers' Compensation.

Think of it -- in one act, we remove two of our three major unfunded pension liabilities. We double the amount in the Medical Trust Fund and we make another major contribution to Workers' Compensation.

Budgets and laws are not just words on paper. They are about people. They are about Mark Cheeseman who lost his son to a drunk driver; they are about Corey Isner, with dreams of pursuing a career in business or law and Amber Bishop who wants to be a doctor; they are about David Zimmerman enjoying life after cancer; and they are about Jessica Lynch, a future kindergarten teacher.

I started three years ago a tradition to submit all my legislation on the first night of the session. Tonight, I continue this tradition. All my bills are being transmitted to you by e-mail.

We can begin work tomorrow.

Tonight, to the people of West Virginia, I thank you for allowing me to serve as your governor -- it is the highest honor. For the past three years, I have committed myself and my administration to improving the lives of every West Virginian. In the next year, I pledge to work every day to continue to provide affordable health care, protect and increase the number of good-paying jobs and to provide every child the opportunity to get a quality education.

During the past three years, we have taken on many tough issues together. They haven't been easy. But we took them on. Already, our state is better because of it.

This year, we can take on more tough issues. Some say, Take it easy. It's an election year,' but neither you nor I want this -- and the public demands more action. We've seen what working hard can do -- and we like it.

Some say, Let's have business as usual.' I say The usual business has changed.' We act based on the next generation--not the next election. We set a new standard, and we're never going back.

This will be a year of action. I ask for your help.

I ask God's blessing on this Legislature, on its work and the state of West Virginia.

 
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