Monday, February 19, 2007

Governor Easley called for some ambitious programs Monday night. Even his critics are curious about his idea to cut the state income tax or at least reduce it for more than a million people. Republicans came out blazing on how Easley plans to pay for it all and why he didn't address in more detail his plans to fight public corruption after the guilty plea last week and another tomorrow by former House Speaker Jim Black. Expect more details in Easley's budget which could be released as early as Wednesday. In the meantime, here's the text of his State of the State address provided by the Governor's Press Office.

"Speaker Hackney, Senator Basnight, Lt. Governor Perdue, Members of the General Assembly, Chief Justice Parker, Members of the Court, Chief Judge Martin, Members of the Court of Appeals, Council of State and Cabinet, honored guests and fellow citizens.

I would first like to recognize my wife Mary and my son Michael for their love and support.

Tonight, it is my honor to deliver my final State of the State Address. It is much easier than my first one in 2001, because our state is much stronger.

We have taken the toughest blows that a national recession and federal trade policies could deliver, and we are not only surviving in this new world economy, we are thriving in it.

Because of your hard work and discipline, we turned a $2.5 billion shortfall into years of budget surplus.

We have 300,000 more North Carolinians employed today than we did six years ago.

Our schools have lower class sizes and higher test scores.

Six years ago, we had no pre-K program. Today, we have almost 20,000 four-year-olds in More at Four. And we are adding 10,000 more this year.

And with this budget, we will raise teacher pay by 18 percent since 2005 and we are not through yet.

We have fully funded the low-wealth schools, sent turn around teams into failing schools, and we are auditing every school in the state to ensure full accountability for every education dollar.

Our progress is not always measured by how many new programs we start, or how much new money we spend. At this point, given how aggressive you have been, our success should be measured by how well we reap what we have sown. We have planted the seeds of success all across this great state, and we must see them to fruition. Progress is not always about planting new crops, it is often about tending the current harvest and increasing the yield.

Now, having said that, I did bring a little seed corn with me tonight, just in case.

We have worked together closely, as all governments should. We may serve in different branches, but we all share the same roots.

I know progress has not always been easy. If it was, it could have been done by lesser people. But it has always been a great reward.

It is great to have the best business climate in America. It is great to have the best credit rating in America. And it is great to have made the most education progress in the country.

We have done well, but we cannot be satisfied with yesterday's progress.

We must represent the spirit of our people, who have disdain for mediocrity and demand for excellence.

As our soldiers sacrifice abroad, we must show that we are worthy of their sacrifice here at home. They should return to a better North Carolina than they left.

Our nation is still at war. North Carolina is experiencing the largest deployment of soldiers since World War II.

We pray for their safe and speedy return.

War has tragic consequences. The children of our military are struggling too. That is why you funded military family support programs. The children sacrifice a lot, and I am asking you to help them more this year.

Breanna Bodden is nine years old and an honor student at North Harnett Elementary near Fort Bragg. Breanna's stepfather was deployed to Iraq. Then her mother, Army Reservist Rebecca Hagler, was deployed to Iraq. And now recently, her father was deployed. She is living with Deborah Clark, a family friend. Breanna's situation is not unique. It is one of the consequences of war.

Breanna is with us tonight, and her mom is watching live from Iraq. Breanna and Rebecca, we are proud of both of you, and you can rest assured that North Carolina will be there for all of you until your family is reunited.

The true fight for the American way of life is not only in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have enemies to conquer here, as well. In this new world economy, we must fight the enemy of ignorance and illiteracy, the enemy of apathy and complacency, and the enemy of anguish and poverty.

Protecting America means much more than just providing for the national defense. We must protect our economic security, as well. We must be committed to the patriotic duty of providing the knowledge, talent, and skill for our people to compete and win in the world marketplace.

For in this global era, the unskilled nations will suffer and the skilled nations will prosper. North Carolina intends to prosper.

North Carolina was the only state to keep the schoolhouse doors open during the Great Depression - and we must open them wider still today, for as America leads the world, North Carolina must lead the nation.

That is why, working together, we have developed Learn and Earn early college high schools. Learn and Earn allows high school students to take college courses at their high school. Students earn a college associate's degree with just one extra year of study. Families save thousands of dollars on education costs and the graduation rate goes up.

These schools have made national headlines, from Newsweek to CBS News and have won national awards.

But students like Ashley Williams are what Learn and Earn is all about. For Ashley, college was once a far-off dream. Now, she is two courses away from earning her associate's degree and then plans to get her bachelor's degree.

Ashley is in the audience tonight. She is the first in her family to ever go to college.

Her future plans include a career in public service. She wants to be Governor. She has two more years of college. I have two more years as Governor - it might work out.

We must support Ashley's education not only because of her worth as a child of God, but we need Ashley and all the other Ashleys out there to develop and contribute their talent to build One North Carolina and a stronger America.

There are other nations emerging, jealous of our success and position in the world. They are investing heavily in education. They are poised to take advantage of any weaknesses that we allow or create. We will not let our lead in creativity and innovation erode.

Let all know that this state and nation will make any sacrifice and invest any resource, but we will never surrender our position as world leaders. This time in our history does not call for following the old familiar path. Now is the time to blaze a new trail so that all people of good-will and ambition can travel that path to prosperity.

I believe the path is clear.

We obligated ourselves in our constitution to provide for K-12 education. But that same document requires us to offer a college education as free as practical. And, in this new world, it is impractical not to offer college to every citizen.

As more of our students receive an advanced education, North Carolina becomes stronger. College graduates earn over 60 percent more per year than high school graduates.

They generate more wealth, more revenue and more innovation, and we secure our place as a leader in the world economy.

I have worked with Learn and Earn schools like Ashley's. We plan to have 75 of them open by the 2008-2009 school year. That is good, but it is not enough.

My budget will include support to take Learn and Earn early college high school statewide. It is only fair to give every student in every corner of every county in North Carolina the opportunity to take college-level courses and earn an associate's degree at their high school, and they can do it for free.

The time for timidity has passed. The time for action has come. Let us be bold and aggressive and set the goal that all students can earn a college associate’s degree by the time they leave school.

President Erskine Bowles of the UNC System and President Martin Lancaster of the Community College System and State Board of Education Chair Howard Lee have worked tirelessly and given complete support for this effort.

Gentlemen, we thank you.

But there is more. To middle and high schoolers and their families, I say to you tonight - you can all get a four-year college degree.

Our tuition is one of the lowest in the nation. And we are going to keep it low.

We have increased financial aid for needy students.

This legislature now provides almost $300 million in college aid.

And we have come this far so that we can finish the job this year. Just as other generations have sacrificed so the next might prosper, our generation will do no less.

My budget will provide students in low- and moderate-income families with a grant for a college education.

But students, I want you to hear me clearly. This plan is not a free lunch. You have to earn it. With every opportunity comes accountability. We will supply a grant, but you have to keep your grades up and be willing to work 10 hours a week. If you do, you can graduate from college in North Carolina debt free.

The grant will pay for two additional years of college, so students who earn an associate’s degree through a Learn and Earn program can finish college at a state university.

Now, let us think about this for a minute…

We are investing billions of dollars in early childhood, pre-K, lower class size and teacher pay. We are doing this not so we can maintain the status quo. We are doing it so we can raise the bar and raise the level of expectation for education. We are giving more opportunity, and we expect more achievement.

The people of this state have been tested before, and they have always answered the call.

Today, it is the duty of every citizen to learn as much as they can to compete in the world economy. And it is our duty to offer that opportunity. It is the right thing to do not because our constitution orders it, or because our economy requires it, but because our North Carolina values demand it.

Education is critical to protecting the strength of America. But we have other obligations as well.

We know we will be judged by how we treat the least of our people.

Even during the worst of times, we refused to follow the poor example of others. Many denied their most vulnerable citizens Medicaid and child health care.

We did not follow Washington's example of cutting the safety net for our most needy. In fact, we replaced federal cuts for the disabled, and increased our child health care. We numbed the pain of Washington politics as much as we could.

We even had to replace federal cuts to foster-care families.

When children enter foster care, we the state, assume the role of guardian. We become their parents and we raise them. But when these children reach 18, they are set out on their own with no financial support, no health care or higher education. I believe we can do better than that.

I propose that we do for them, the state's children, the same as we do for own: offer them health care until age 21 while they pursue a college education. After all, we committed to raise these children. Let us do it in a way so they can be strong and we can be proud.

Meanwhile, we can hope all children will have a loving family. We can help families afford the costs of adopting a child. By offering an adoption tax credit, we can provide the opportunity not only for a family to have a child - but for every child to have a family.

And, we have to help families who cannot afford health care for their children.

Every year, we have fully funded our Child Health Insurance Program. This stops a small problem from becoming a major illness and a major cost to us. We are never as big as when we help those who are small. We will fully fund CHIPS again this year.

But now, middle class families are feeling the financial squeeze from the rising cost of health care.

The N.C. Kids Care package that I will propose will help cover 12,000 children in North Carolina families who earn an income of up to 300 percent of the poverty level.

This plan will require these families to pay an affordable amount for their children to have health care coverage.

We have seen Washington shift the risk and burden in America to our low- and middle-income families. Many struggle to make ends meet.

It is time to reverse that trend. We must put a value on work and lessen the burden on hardworking people who struggle under the crushing weight of poverty.

We can do it by making our tax code more fair. The principle is simple. People in poverty should not pay income tax in this state.

Tonight, I propose that we eliminate the income tax entirely for almost 600,000 North Carolina taxpayers and cut it in half for over 600,000 more. This will send a message in a loud and mighty voice that we place a premium on work and we mean for it to pay off for hard-working people.

It is fair. It is just. And it is affordable.

And we will never forget our greatest generation.

Our seniors are having difficulty navigating the Medicare D Prescription Plan, and many still cannot afford the premiums. If they do not get their medication, they end up in the hospital, and that is more suffering for them and more cost for us. I am pleased to report that the plan you wanted, North Carolina Rx, is already improving the lives of 4,000 seniors, and we are making room for 45,000 more this year.

Our seniors built this country and made it great. They were there for us when we needed them, and we will be there for them now that they need us.

And protecting the least of these is not just about those who are poor.

All children should feel safe in school. My budget will add additional school resource officers to make sure every child is protected. Parents have the right to know that when they drop off their children at school, they are leaving them in a safe environment.

It still takes too long for criminal cases to be prosecuted. We must build on the progress we made last year for the courts and for law enforcement.

We are adding additional prosecutors, judges, victims' assistance and clerks, and expanding our prisons.

If you commit a violent crime in this state, we are going to take you to court faster and keep you in jail longer.

We are also funding more technology and communication for local law enforcement, as we have done every year since 9/11.

But much has changed in six years. Our economy is transitioning to newer and better jobs. Our economic and business climate is ranked among the best in the nation.

You should be proud of what you have accomplished. We have done it with the strategy set in 2001. We are keeping the tax burden low and our knowledge level high. We are staying focused on creativity and innovation, and we are using smart and targeted investments. And our incentives must continue to be based on performance and accountability

I ask you to fund that package again this year. At the same time, we will continue to fund our research institutions, build regional centers for promising new opportunities and give relief to small businesses.

There are only so many high-skill jobs out there, and we have to stay aggressive every hour of every day until we transition our economy in every county so that every citizen who wants a better job can get a better job.

If any of our counties are weak, then we all are weaker.

We must have strong state and local governments. We must work together to help those low-wealth counties struggling with rising Medicaid costs.

I know the State and Local Fiscal Modernization Study Commission is working hard on a solution. They will make their recommendation to us next month. If we do not receive a timely or reasonable recommendation, we will offer our own plan. But, one way or another, we are going to face and fix this problem this session.

Our disciplined nature must extend to energy use, as well. We want this country to be energy independent and the small steps we take can make a big difference.

We have saved millions in state government buildings by making them more energy efficient. All of us must conserve more. We cannot just keep building more and more power plants.

This year, working with the power companies, we will give you incentives. If you increase your energy efficiency we will decrease your power bill.

We are offering the best tax credits in the nation for alternative power. We have two choices: start working toward energy independence or put our country at risk. We must choose independence.

Together, we enhanced our environment by cleaning our water and air. We added more than 400,000 acres in state lands, from the waterfalls of Dupont Forest to the cliffs of Chimney Rock. Great natural resources are not replaceable, and we will not let them be destroyed.

Lastly, you took needed steps toward ethics and campaign reform last session. But, this year and every year to come, there will always be more work to be done and more improvements to be made.

We must be mindful that democracy only works when people participate and people only participate when they have confidence in the integrity of the political process.

I urge you to continue to improve and refine the good work you have started until it fully reflects the character and integrity of the people of North Carolina.

So tonight, we have positioned our state well.

We can never forget how we got here and what we have been through.

Now is not the time to abandon fiscal discipline. We cannot over-spend, over-tax or over-borrow.

Real progress must be sustainable, and it must be paid for. Otherwise, the promises made today will be broken tomorrow. Fiscal discipline, education progress, care for the least of these, these are the hallmarks of a great state.

I came here in 2001, when we were facing the largest budget shortfall in history, recovering from a flood in 40 of our 100 counties and losing hundreds of thousands of jobs to foreign trade.

I said then, "It is the darkest hours that bring out the brightest stars." And, oh, how you did shine. You made more progress during a recession than others did in a decade of prosperity.

Success is contagious, and progress is its own momentum, and you have continued to shine and fight off the enemy of apathy and complacency.

So now, greatness is within our reach. Let us never have regret for lost opportunity.

We can build what others would not dream and dream what others would not dare.

We can build a stronger, brighter and better North Carolina.

And in our stronger and brighter future, they will say about you, you who serve here tonight, that you had courage. They will say about you, you who serve here tonight, that you had compassion.

They will say about you, you who serve here tonight, that your values were good and just and fair."

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