Governor Minner may deviate from prepared remarks
Lieutenant Governor Carney, President Pro Tem Adams, Speaker Spence, members of the 143rd General Assembly, members of the Delaware judiciary, other elected officials, members of my Cabinet, state employees, distinguished guests, my family and my fellow Delawareans.
This time last year, I talked to you about sowing the seeds for our state's future-doing things today so we will leave our children and their children a better Delaware. And we have done that. This year, I will speak about the importance of nurturing those seeds-putting our time, effort and resources into ensuring that they grow and thrive to create a strong and healthy climate for our schools, our health, our environment and our economy.
Our list of accomplishments is a long one and don't worry, I won't talk about all of them today.
But before I begin, I would like to take a moment to recognize and thank the members of our Delaware National Guard for their continued commitment to serve our state, both here at home and on foreign soil.
They are represented today by Capt. Brian Foulk and First Sgt. Pat Olechny, both Bronze Star recipients who just returned from Iraq in November. We thank them and the rest of our Guard and Reserves for their tireless efforts to protect our state and our country.
In Delaware, we are strongly committed to supporting our troops. Over the past several years, our General Assembly has passed, and I have signed, several pieces of legislation protecting and enhancing benefits for our Guard and Reserves. That support for our troops was recognized this year when we were selected by the Department of Defense as one of only 15 employers in the nation to receive the national Freedom Award.
We were nominated by three state employees who are also members of our National Guard. At this time, I would like to recognize these special guests-Sergeant Major Ken Hardy of the Delaware State Police, Senior Master Sergeant Robert Brown of the Division of Probation and Parole and Sergeant Fernando Ollano of the Division of Long Term Care Residents Protection.
While we were certainly honored to receive the award, we truly believe that supporting our troops and their families is the least we can do for their dedicated service to us.
Now, with the state of our great state strong and poised for the challenges that lie ahead, I would like to share with you my vision for the coming year.
I will start by talking about our schools because I am extremely pleased with and very proud of the progress we have made in education. And apparently, we aren't the only ones who have noticed.
This month, Education Week released its national report card on public education with Delaware earning some of the highest marks in the country. Also, our fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores on the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress were among the highest in the nation. And at the state level, our students have shown steady and remarkable progress on our standardized tests.
However, we cannot afford to relax our education efforts.
Last year, we started with the first phase of my plan to put a math specialist in every middle school to help those who need extra help with their math skills and keep them from falling behind. We funded 22 specialists last year, and I will propose next week that we continue this program by adding 10 more to the ranks.
I'm also looking forward to seeing the first students take advantage of a program I consider to be one of the most important of my Administration-the Student Excellence Equals Degree-or SEED-scholarship program.
Thanks to the hard work of Sen. Harris McDowell and Rep. Nancy Wagner, students will now have the opportunity to receive a two-year college degree tuition-free. We are going to be working diligently this year to make sure students in all of our elementary, middle and high schools are aware of this opportunity.
As you know, I have already set a goal to fully implement full-day kindergarten across our state by 2008.
My proposed budget will include funding to implement the second phase of that plan. This phase will expand operations funding for districts with existing available classroom space and also continue to fund building costs for those districts that passed referenda for full-day kindergarten last year.
This additional funding will help solidify our students' foundation for learning and prepare them for a lifetime of success.
The health of my fellow Delawareans continues to be a priority for this Administration.
Fighting cancer has been a cornerstone of my agenda, and we will further those efforts by continuing to fund the recommendations of the Delaware Advisory Council on Cancer Incidence and Mortality.
We are committed to fight this deadly disease and have proven that by becoming the first state in the nation to implement a multi-faceted plan to reduce our cancer rates. Through education prevention, screening and even providing treatment for our uninsured citizens, we are already seeing the results of our work.
The cancer incidence rate has decreased four times as much as our nation's rate and Delaware's death rate has declined twice as much as the nation's. With the investments we're making in cancer control, we can expect more good news to come.
During the upcoming fiscal year, I will recommend funding to continue the Cancer Treatment Program for the Uninsured, as well as the Screening for Life, and tobacco-use prevention programs.
The Infant Mortality Task Force presented its recommendations to us, and I recently created the Healthy Mothers and Infants Consortium-a group of doctors, professionals and advocates that will work to implement those recommendations. This group will also coordinate efforts to prevent infant mortality and improve the health of women of child-bearing age and infants in Delaware.
I thank the General Assembly for passing legislation to permanently establish this important group. We have already improved our national ranking, but much more can be done.
My budget for the current year added $1 million to increase staff devoted to infant mortality prevention, implement a review process through the Child Death, Near Death and Stillbirth Review Commission and enhance care management for up to two years postpartum for at-risk mothers and infants. My Fiscal Year 2007 budget proposal will add another million dollars to increase preconception care for women with a history of poor birth outcomes.
Another potential health threat we cannot afford to ignore is that of avian flu. While the United States has never had a confirmed case of avian flu spreading to the human population, we must act now to prepare for the possibility.
In September, I directed the Departments of Safety and Homeland Security, Agriculture and Health & Social Services to establish a cabinet-level working group to plan for and monitor the threat of a pandemic in our state.
These agencies have developed and exercised a comprehensive plan to address a potential outbreak and have involved key partners in identifying and responding to a pandemic, including the medical community, the media, law enforcement and the business community.
This plan includes surveillance mechanisms to identify the start of a pandemic, practices for preventing and minimizing its spread and protocols for ensuring capacity to treat affected citizens, as well as first responders and medical personnel.
Last year, we included funding for the University of Delaware laboratories conducting avian flu research and testing to enhance these prevention and response efforts. And I will propose in my budget next week that we add $100,000 to that program to continue that important work.
We will also continue to focus on the health of our state employees.
Our Health Rewards program has been recognized nationally as an innovative and effective model to improve employee health, thereby cutting health care costs. To continue in that effort, I have asked our Lt. Governor to kick off an immediate “Know Your Numbers” campaign among our state employees.
This campaign will educate them on the importance of knowing basic information about health risk factors, such as blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar, and will provide specific information on how to reduce those risk factors if necessary.
We will also offer every state employee the opportunity to complete a confidential, on-line Health Risk Assessment that will provide them with a comprehensive report about their wellness status, as well as access to information necessary for them to address any risks identified in that assessment.
Our prevention program is already a success. At least one state employee credits our efforts with saving his life. Curt Cole is business manager for Maintenance and Operations at the Department of Transportation and learned through the Health Rewards program that he had three blocked arteries around his heart. As a result, he was quickly scheduled for life-saving triple-bypass surgery. It is particularly nice to have you with us today, Mr. Cole.
And while I'm addressing health issues, I would like to make a quick point about Medicaid, which now provides health care for more than one of every six Delawareans who are disabled, elderly or cannot afford their own health insurance. My budget will include funding to fully meet both the expected increase in enrollment and the increase in costs of health care, as it has every year of my Administration. Delaware is one of the few states that have not cut enrollment, or benefits, or both over the past few years, something we can be very proud of.
Last year, I talked about the importance of finding a solution to the limited capacity of our landfills and the possibility of reducing trash through recycling.
I am pleased to say that this month, we capitalized on an opportunity that will not only reduce the amount of trash going into Delaware landfills, but will also lead to the eventual closure of the Cherry Island landfill.
The Delaware Solid Waste Authority has signed an agreement to develop and submit to the state a comprehensive recycling plan to divert 40 percent of the solid waste from the landfill. And starting next year, yard waste and trimmings will be banned from the landfill and the DSWA will expand its curbside recycling program to Sussex County.
As a result of these efforts, the permitted height of the landfill will only increase by 23 feet. As I said last year, this issue will not go away and requires our best thinking. I applaud Secretary Hughes and our entire team at DNREC for finalizing this permit agreement.
Another issue of great concern to Delawareans is rising energy costs, which affect all of us, but are most problematic for our low-income population.
I commend our leadership in the General Assembly for working with my Administration to put funds in place to help needy families this winter so we can build a long-term solution for low-income families.
The volatility in gas prices and other energy prices last summer left many consumers in a vulnerable position. We need to ensure that future national or local crises don't open the door for unfair opportunism.
I propose today that our state join the 27 others that have enacted some form of anti-gouging legislation to prevent businesses from capitalizing on a similar situation in the future.
As we consider quality of life issues this year, I expect that few will take up more of our time and attention than the state's response to the results of utility deregulation and potential spikes in energy costs for Delawareans.
Based on what we read and hear about this regulatory process, consumers are bracing for what could be significant increases in energy costs this spring that will not only affect household budgets, but could affect the competitiveness of our businesses. I have directed a state Cabinet committee to review the data and report to me by March its recommendations for potential legislative solutions to this impending problem.
Once again this year, when I announce my Legislative Agenda in March, I will call on the General Assembly to pass legislation to strengthen our Livable Delaware legacy by enacting a transfer of development rights bill so we can preserve land, at no cost to taxpayers, in areas where the state and local governments have agreed it should be preserved.
Our economy remains strong, and we continue to maintain our AAA bond rating-one of only six states to do so.
Over the past year, we announced successful partnerships with Invista, DuPont, Playtex and Hercules and saw the grand opening of AAA Mid-Atlantic's new headquarters on the Wilmington Riverfront. Since 2001, we have attracted and retained more than 17,000 jobs in our state.
Last month, the Beacon Hill Institute of Public Policy Research ranked Delaware second in government and fiscal policy.
The University of Massachusetts ranked Delaware Number One for workers in terms of job quality. And Delaware was rated the best state for locating a biotechnology business by the Battelle Memorial Institute and the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
The year ahead promises further economic success stories.
We continue to assist Delaware businesses through my New Economy Initiative and have completed the first round for technology-based seed funding.
We will continue to address the issue of high costs of workers compensation insurance through the work of the Secretary of Labor and the Workers Compensation Advisory Committee. This Advisory Committee has worked hard during the past six months to develop reform legislation that will protect workers, while reducing costs for businesses.
While the work continues, I am confident that we will have a proposal when the General Assembly returns in March.
And as you all know, we received some unsettling news last June about the acquisition of MBNA by Bank of America. Clearly, the impact of this transaction on our state has been a concern of all Delawareans.
We have all come to rely on the stable employment, world-class leadership and generous community support that MBNA has provided to our state and its communities since its amazing rise to prominence in our community and throughout the world.
We will always be grateful to MBNA and its people for their many contributions to Delaware.
These past six months have been very busy ones for my Administration as we aggressively responded to this acquisition by working to bring Bank of America, its charter and its commitment to our state.
We know that MBNA has been a leader throughout the world in the credit card business, and acquisitions almost always involve some short-term employment losses due to redundancy and efficiencies efforts. But we viewed this acquisition as an opportunity, not a risk.
In that spirit of opportunity, I propose that we enact legislation that will modernize Delaware's bank franchise tax and thereby convince them to keep the existing bank charter in our state. This change would encourage not only Bank of America, but other large banking institutions to locate in Delaware.
These types of changes have been discussed and considered as a potential economic development tool for over ten years, and this is the perfect time to enact such legislation.
We've heard a lot this year about the shortfall in the state's Transportation Trust Fund. I formed a task force last summer to study this problem and offer recommendations on options to address it.
Once again, I would like to thank the members of that group, who worked so diligently to develop such a thoughtful report.
I used those recommendations in developing a path forward, looking at both the spending and revenues, as well as short- and long-term solutions.
In the short-term, we will re-examine base expenditures to find savings in the Department's operations. I also signed Executive Order 78, which implements key financial controls for transportation and mandates regular reporting of transportation revenue and expenditures on an annual basis.
To assist the new Secretary manage and oversee Trust Fund operations, I will appoint a financial management oversight committee, comprised of private sector experts, to review and monitor expenditures and track revenues to ensure stronger financial management and help us all be better stewards of our state's transportation program.
As recommended by the Task Force, I have directed my Administration to work with the Bond Bill Committee to identify projects that can be deferred or cut from the program, using the Trust Fund's resources where they are most needed.
Once our review is complete, we will examine shifting some of the Trust Fund's costs to the general fund, as well as exploring the possibility of a private/public partnership or other innovative financing plans for critical needs, such as the Route 301 project.
In the long term, we will obviously need new revenues for the Trust Fund to ensure the fund is solvent for the future. But this year, we must start with a short-term strategy that will lay a foundation for the difficult choices in the years ahead.
My Administration also will continue its focus on the important challenges we face in the area of public safety.
We have worked hard to add troopers to our State Police, and next week, I'll propose to add eight additional state troopers to the force, bringing our total complement to 655 sworn officers, more troopers than at any time in our history.
The demands on our State Troopers are many and complicated, and as we ask more and more of these brave men and women, we will work to make sure that they have the people, technology and tools to do the job.
Another vital component to Delaware's public safety is our correctional system. Our correctional officers and other personnel in the system keep us all safe under some of the most stressful conditions imaginable, and they deserve the respect of every Delawarean.
Commissioner Taylor and I have been working since 2003 to improve the working conditions, and I am proud that we have been able to build up that workforce.
We have improved compensation for our correctional officers. Since 2004, correctional officers' pay has increased by 15 percent. In order to meet the continued challenges of filling vacancies in the system, an additional three percent increase has been implemented and took effect on January 1st.
Our work is paying off. We are seeing improvements in both the vacancy rate and turnover rate for corrections officers over the same time period. We have more work to do to fill these important positions, but we are building on a solid record of success.
Another challenging issue facing our correctional system is the delivery of adequate health care services. As you know, the inmate population is very difficult to serve. Often people who arrive at our institutions have high health risk factors and have long neglected medical conditions.
While providing medical treatment, our corrections system must remain constantly attentive to security concerns.
We have expended a tremendous amount of resources and effort within the Department to assure that our correctional health system is the very best it can be.
When concerns arose last year about the state's vendor for inmate medical services, we worked with members of the Joint Finance Committee to get a new provider on an expedited basis, ensuring that there was no interruption in medical care. Since that time, we have worked to improve services by: creating a new position in the correction department to oversee the delivery of medical care; establishing a single point of medical contact for inmates' families; and conducting quarterly case reviews of medical treatment records by our State's Division of Public Health.
These initiatives are in addition to our work to maintain accreditation of our correctional medical system.
I am proud of our Commissioner and all we have done to ensure that adequate medical care is provided to those in our prisons. We will continue to work to ensure that the system has the confidence of all of you and our citizens.
Our juvenile justice system also faces daunting challenges.
The population growth of Delaware children continues to rise, and the children in the system have more challenges and more complicated problems than ever before.
We will work next year to build more effective ways to reach these troubled youth. We need to aggressively treat, educate and prepare these kids for a productive role in our society so they will not be the next generation's adult prison population.
The Children's Department has developed innovative ways to treat this population, including treating youth in settings outside detention and improving mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.
My budget will also include additional funding for Delaware's first veterans home, and I look forward to the December opening of this facility as a great tribute to our veterans.
My budget plan for the upcoming fiscal year will be responsive and responsible. It will have a budget growth rate of less than 6 percent. We will have a prudent spending plan to ensure that we can cover some of our growing demands, like Medicaid and school enrollment, while still providing basic core services to Delawareans.
As you can see, we are following through with my vision to nurture the seeds we have sown for Delaware's future, ensuring that we can help them grow and bear fruit. We have succeeded in doing just that, in education, health, the environment and economic development.
But there is still much to do, not only for those of us here today, but for our children and grandchildren as well.
To that end, I hope you will carefully consider the initiatives I have laid out for this year and the years to follow.
Together, we can ensure that Delaware continues to be a state where people are proud to live, work and raise their children. Together, we have achieved tremendous success and made remarkable accomplishments. I look forward to working with you as we all strive toward the goal of making our state the nation's best.