Governor Minner may deviate from prepared remarks
Lieutenant Governor Carney, President Pro Tem Adams, Speaker Spence, members of the 144th General Assembly, members of the Delaware judiciary, other elected officials, members of my Cabinet, state employees, distinguished guests, my family and my fellow Delawareans.
Before I get into the formal part of my remarks, I ask that you join me in a moment of silent reflection in recognition of the men and women we have lost in military operations around the globe. Last week, we had a very sad reminder of the sacrifices that some of our fellow citizens make on our behalf with the loss of Elizabeth Loncki, senior airman from New Castle. Elizabeth was our state's 15th casualty in this conflict and I ask that we take a moment in recognition of Elizabeth and her fallen comrades.
During my first six years as your Governor, my Administration has laid a strong foundation for our state in important areas such as education, health, our environment and our economy. We have made tremendous accomplishments that I am extremely proud of, many of which will have a positive impact on Delawareans for years to come. But we still have work to do, and I can assure you we will work as hard during the final two years of my term in office as we have for the previous six.
Our work together has focused primarily on keeping our state on sound financial footing, making difficult decisions in the short-term with a mindful eye on the future.
We are experiencing a more uncertain economy, which requires more prudent spending and targeting our priorities. As I have said in the past, we have done in state government what our citizens have done with their own budgets-cut where we could, kept budget growth to a minimum and focused our spending on core needs.
Because of that approach, I am extremely proud of the fact that despite these more difficult times, our state has maintained its AAA bond rating (one of just six states to do so) and our unemployment rate remains one of the nation's lowest at 3.6 percent. We have remained a top state in which to live and operate a business, all while facing increasing school enrollment, skyrocketing Medicaid costs, severe federal budget cuts and other strains on our tight resources.
Ladies and gentlemen, once again I am proud to stand before you and say the state of our great state is strong and growing stronger, but we still have some work to do.
Together, we have made tremendous progress in our public education system. We will continue those efforts, working with all of our students, from pre-kindergarten through high school, as well as those in college.
Our state test scores are continuing to rise, and the percentage of Delaware students receiving among the highest scores on Advanced Placement exams is well above the national average. Also, our fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores on the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress were among the highest in the nation.
In 2004 we were able to complete my goal of placing a reading specialist in every elementary school in the state, and last year we began the placement of math specialists in every middle school, helping those students who need extra assistance to work on their math skills and keep them from falling behind in this critical area. This year, I am proposing that we add 10 more math specialists to the 32 we have previously funded, which will complete this program. Despite these successes, we still have work to do.
We will continue funding for full-day kindergarten, as we continue toward the goal I outlined of offering this program in every school by next year. The budget I release next week will include money to provide complete funding for full-day kindergarten in 11 school districts and eight charter schools. The money will also continue funding for pilot full day-K classrooms in two other school districts.
In our effort to continue to help our youngest children gain a firm foundation for future learning, we are also focusing more attention on early childhood education, which touches our children from birth to 5 years of age. Over the coming year, we plan to provide financial incentives for early child care centers that do an exceptional job for the children in their care, preparing them for a lifetime of success.
You have all heard about the Vision 2015 plan which outlines a bold, creative blueprint to support our goal of making our schools the best in the world. The Vision 2015 group-comprised of business leaders, educators and state officials-worked diligently for over a year to bring their best creative thinking to enhance, support and continue the reforms we have implemented in Delaware. What is most encouraging about this report is that many of the proposals are consistent with our priorities and it is clear that our common goal-excellent schools-has resulted in similar efforts.
While I will talk in more detail about education spending when I present my budget next week, I wanted to take this opportunity to thank the Vision 2015 committee for their hard work and commitment to our public education system. I especially want to thank the chair, Skip Schoenhals, for his leadership on this project. As a state, we are all working toward a common goal. Skip, would you please stand and be recognized for your efforts?
In the continuing effort to provide all of our children every opportunity to succeed, I have directed Adjutant General Vavala of our Delaware National Guard to develop a Youth Challenge Program here in our state. This program, which is currently operating in 25 other states, provides re-entry education for students between the ages of 16 to 18 who have dropped out or been expelled from high school. In other states, this program has successfully provided a high school diploma or GED to nearly 70 percent of its participants, 40 percent of whom go on to higher education.
As I have said on many occasions, we cannot afford to have any child drop out of our education system, and this new initiative will provide us with yet another tool to ensure that all of our children have a better future.
During this past year, we have heard many comments and questions about our new Student Excellence Equals Degree (or SEED) scholarship program. But one fact is abundantly clear-this program is an overwhelming success.
Today, SEED is helping more than 800 Delaware high school graduates attend college for free as they pursue associates degrees to prepare them for their future careers. Hundreds more students applied for the program but had their financial needs met through other scholarship programs and grants.
I don't have to tell you how important that is to our economy, our education system, and most important, to the thousands of children who are motivated to do better in school because they know they have the chance to go to college.
At this time, I would like to recognize Olivia Spencer and Joe Bratten, two criminal justice majors currently taking advantage of the SEED scholarship. Olivia graduated from Polytech and Joe graduated from Calvary Christian Academy. At this time, I would like to ask them to stand and be recognized.
We need to take the next step. This year, I propose that we create a STAR scholarship program that will provide free college tuition for SEED scholarship recipients who excel and graduate from the associate in arts program and want to pursue a bachelor's degree at one of our state's four-year institutions. This academic incentive scholarship is the logical next step we can take to ensure that all Delaware children can pursue the dream of a college education. Senator McDowell and Representative Wagner, I hope you are ready to work with us on this important next step.
You have heard me speak quite a bit over the past six years about improving the health of our fellow Delawareans and this year those efforts will continue.
I am very pleased at our successful efforts to fight cancer in this state. 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.
We will continue funding the recommendations of the Delaware Advisory Council on Cancer Incidence and Mortality. We are the first and only state in the nation to offer cancer treatment for the uninsured and more than 220 Delawareans have been served by that program to date. I am now recommending that we increase funding for that program from one year of treatment to two years.
Our efforts to reach those at highest risk for cancer are working. Between 1999 and 2005 there has been a 38 percent increase in the number of African-Americans who reported having a colorectal cancer screening. In our latest survey, 42 percent of African-Americans who had had a colonoscopy had done so in the last year. Since colorectal cancer screening was added as a benefit through Delaware's Screening for Life program, more than 1,200 uninsured individuals have been screened and nearly 360 individuals had potentially cancerous colon polyps removed. We have clearly made tremendous strides in making our state healthier, but there is still work to do.
We now know that research and science has provided a vaccine to prevent a virus that causes cervical cancer in women. Since early intervention and education is key, Lt. Gov. John Carney is working to educate Delawareans on this important vaccine, particularly the target population-girls between the ages of nine and 17.
Based on a recent recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control, I propose that we provide this vaccine for all uninsured girls in that age range.
In 2005, I created the Delaware Healthy Mothers and Infants Consortium to coordinate with the Division of Public Health as it carries out the recommendations of the Infant Mortality Task Force. The Consortium recently released its first annual report, highlighting the many activities underway to reduce Infant Mortality in our state, including initiatives such as the establishment of the Fetal Infant Mortality Review Team and the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System. This year, I will continue to provide funding to implement the recommendation of the Task Force so that, under the guidance of the Consortium, we can continue our efforts to reduce infant mortality rates.
During the past several years, we have implemented programs to improve the health of our state employees, such as our nationally recognized Health Rewards program and the “Know Your Numbers” campaign. Both of these programs, combined with our other wellness and prevention initiatives, are not only making our employees healthier, but they also saved more than $40 million over the past two years. I want to thank the State Employee Benefits Committee for their efforts, and while we have had success in this area, we still have work to do.
Next month we will be launching a major state employee healthcare initiative that will build on past success. Called DelaWell, this program will provide our employees with a comprehensive educational and lifestyle plan, which includes a confidential health risk assessment. I am confident that this new effort will continue our record of success and I look forward to announcing the details of DelaWell next month.
We also will continue our efforts toward a healthier state by addressing an issue that we must all agree is an impending crisis-the increase in childhood obesity rates. As statistics have been showing, childhood obesity is climbing at an alarming rate, resulting in increases in Type II diabetes, heart disease and circulatory problems among our youth.
According to the Surgeon General, for the first time in more than a century, children born today have an expected life span shorter than that of their parents. These rates are due in part to the combination of more TV and computer use, which results in less physical activity and unhealthy nutritional choices. While there are very clear action steps that can be taken to address this trend, we will help parents identify the best strategy to help their children make healthy choices.
To enhance the efforts already underway in our schools, I will propose funding to implement a program that will provide a comprehensive “fitness-gram” to parents of every fourth-grade student in our schools.
This confidential assessment will inform parents of their child's vital health statistics, such as height, weight, body mass index and other key information that will serve as a basis for their personal fitness prescription. This report will empower parents with information to help their children make healthy choices now to prevent more debilitating health problems in the future.
I am also recommending that we raise the cigarette tax by 45 cents per pack to create the Delaware Healthy Life Fund. Statistics clearly show that this is the single most effective way to prevent smoking among our youth, but this fund will also be used to support a number of critical health initiatives, including coverage for the uninsured and underinsured, expansion of the Delaware Healthy Children Program (or CHIP) to an additional 975 families and additional funding to reduce infant mortality.
We must also address the growing problem of health disparities among the diverse populations of our state. Through the leadership of Lt. Governor Carney, the Health Disparities Task Force is finalizing recommendations which will serve as a path forward for developing a comprehensive plan to eliminate disparities in health and health outcomes among different ethnic groups. I have set aside $1 million dollars from this fund to begin implementing recommendations of the Task Force in the year ahead.
I would like to talk for just a moment about Medicaid, which is one of our state's major success stories. More than one out of every six Delawareans is covered by Medicaid, and our continued focus on program management and cost containment have allowed us to meet the growing demand caused by enrollment growth and cost inflation without restricting eligibility or reducing services-an accomplishment few other states can claim. We have focused on managing prescription benefits to improve health outcomes and contain the growth of prescription drug costs, and the result has been more Delawareans being served.
Protecting our environment has been one of my top priorities since taking office, and I am proud to report that since 2001, we have permanently preserved almost 11,000 acres of open space. That includes such critical lands as premier property next to White Clay Creek State Park, the Revolutionary War site Cooch's Bridge, the Blendt Farm in Smyrna and 2,000 acres of Glatfelter holdings in Sussex.
We created a permanent funding source for farmland preservation. Delaware, as you know, has one of the most successful programs in the country and to date has permanently protected 462 farms, totaling more than 82,000 acres. I am proposing the first year of funding for a similar forestland preservation initiative that you approved in 2005.
We will continue to work on curbing sprawl in our state. In 2001, only a handful of towns had professional plans detailing how and where they wanted to grow. Now, almost every one of our 57 municipalities has a professional comprehensive plan that all levels of government - local, county and state - have agreed to, which means that annexations now undergo much more scrutiny.
As you can see, Livable Delaware is not just a “feel-good” program. By growing in an orderly, planned manner, we ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent more effectively.
Last year, we introduced a Transfer of Development Rights bill that not only will preserve open lands at no cost to taxpayers, but also includes a means of funding infrastructure so existing taxpayers are not saddled with the costs of growth. This bill had broad and diverse sponsorship, and I intend to bring it back.
While we have had our share of success, we still have work to do. I still believe that Delaware needs to do a much better job at recycling. Our rate continues to be among the lowest in the country, with only 12 percent of residential household waste being recycled.
This isn't just about extending the life of our landfills and spending a little out of our pockets now to save tens of millions in the future. It is about being responsible stewards of our state and our world, something our citizens expect and deserve from their elected officials.
Recycling must also be more convenient and inexpensive - and it doesn't need to be mandatory. I intend to introduce revised legislation that encourages local governments and the private sector to step up and provide better options for their constituents and customers.
Delaware's economic development efforts have remained strong throughout my term, despite some difficult economic times that forced other states to take drastic measures like layoffs and cuts in services. As you know, we have worked together when it comes to helping existing companies and recruiting new businesses to our state and since 2001, we have retained or created more than 35,000 jobs.
This time last year, we worked in partnership to enact a landmark revision of our banking laws, and within weeks celebrated the results of that hard work as Bank of America's credit card operation announced our state as its new home. And just this past year we had Air Liquide and Scientific Products decide to expand their operations in Delaware.
This month, we were named one of just two states in the nation to receive straight A's on the 2007 Development Report Card of the States released by the Council for Economic Development. Clearly, we are not the only ones who recognize what Delaware has to offer. But while we have had our successes, we still have work to do.
Over the coming year, our Economic Development Office will market a new initiative to promote the Technology-Based Seed Fund, the Emerging Technology Center, and the New Intellectual Property Program-all part of my New Economy Initiative. These programs fit together as a one-stop service for those wishing to start a business.
We can provide entrepreneurs with ideas for business by offering a patent for new products, we can help fund new start-ups through the Technology-Based Seed Funds; and we can help get new businesses off the ground by providing resources and guidance through the Emerging Technology Center.
For over two years, we have worked diligently on reforming our worker's compensation system. I am pleased to say that last night about 6:30 I signed S.B. 1, a bill that will reform our worker's compensation system and result in estimated savings of 20 percent or more. Go ahead, give yourselves a round of applause.
As I have said before, this reform is critical to our competitiveness and will help us to retain and attract businesses to our state. I want to thank Labor Secretary Tom Sharp, my legal counsel Joe Schoell, Representative Bill Oberle and Senator Tony DeLuca for their efforts to get this bill passed. Last night I was able to personally thank the members of the working group who came together in recent months to work on this bill, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them once again. This is very important for Delaware and our businesses.
You heard me talk last year about the need to address the shortfall in the state's Transportation Trust Fund. At that time, I appointed a financial management oversight committee to review and monitor expenditures and track revenues to ensure stronger financial management. I commend this group for its commitment and hard work, and they have done a great job working with the Department.
We also worked with you, through the bond bill committee, to prioritize projects and identify savings in the program. As I said at that time, our long-term plan to ensure the solvency of the Trust Fund would have to include new revenues in the form of traditional and non-traditional methods of financing the Trust Fund. We have worked very hard during the past two years to identify solutions, but there is still much work to do.
As you might recall, the Task Force I appointed in 2005 identified a range of financial needs with a “worst case scenario” of a $2.7 billion shortfall for the fund. Through the diligent cost reduction efforts of Transportation Secretary Carolann Wicks, Office of Management and Budget Director Jennifer Davis and their staffs, we now know that the real need over the six-year program is $1.5 billion. Obviously, we still have a lot of work to do to make up that difference, but this actual number is certainly more manageable than the original estimates last year. We look forward to working with you in the months ahead to solve this problem.
Next week in my budget address, I will give further details of our plan to contain costs, maximize our federal dollars and add revenues to the Trust Fund so we address the financial shortfall and provide a stable, predictable future for our transportation system.
We have worked together to improve the quality of life for our citizens but we still have some work to do.
In December, we gathered to celebrate the opening of our new Veterans Home to provide a world-class facility for Delaware veterans in their later years and the home is scheduled to open for patients this spring. My budget will therefore include operational funding for the home, which is a first for our state and fulfills a long-time dream for our veterans who bravely and valiantly served our state and our country.
With the changing times and increased demands on our Department of Safety and Homeland Security, additional law enforcement officers and cutting-edge technology are desperately needed to protect and serve our state. In 2003 I set a goal of increasing our Delaware State Police ranks to 680 troopers within five years. This year I am recommending the addition of six troopers, bringing our total to 661, keeping us on track to meet our goal.
I will also recommend continued funding for our Delaware Information Analysis Center, a state-of-the-art facility that gathers and shares information throughout government to make Delaware safer.
This center will work with law enforcement, government, and private sector officials to achieve the most important objective-getting the right information into the right hands, before a critical incident occurs.
We all know that the youngest members of our society are our greatest asset. For youth that enter into our juvenile justice system, we have a unique opportunity to help set them on the right track, and provide them with the tools they need to go on to a successful future.
Under the leadership of Secretary DeSantis, The Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families is working everyday, along with our partners in the judiciary and the community, to identify programs and protocols which seek to address the underlying causes of delinquent behaviors, and to provide services accordingly. I continue to support the efforts of the Department as it works with its many partners in identifying and implementing initiatives that will give these youth a chance to turn their lives around.
I am very proud of the accomplishments we have made in education, health, the environment and economic development. We are continuing to be a national leader in areas like fighting cancer and improving employee health, economic development and financial management, and we have a bold plan to continue these efforts.
But as I said earlier, we still have work to do. We have important goals to achieve over the next two years to improve our state now and for the generations that follow.
I can assure you that we will not slow down. Our work continues and our focus remains on keeping our state a place where people want to live, work and raise their children. We cannot do that without the help and support of our General Assembly. We have worked well together in the past, and I look forward to continuing to work to make Delaware the best state in our nation.