President King, Speaker Byrd, Members of the Legislature, honored guests and my fellow Floridians, Good Morning.
Let me begin by saluting the 14 new Senators and 30 new Representatives who join us today. This morning represents a new beginning for all of us, but it is also a moment of particular joy and fulfillment for you and your families.
This is the first State of the State address of an exciting new term for me, but it's also the last with my good friend and partner Frank Brogan. Frank, you have worked so hard on behalf of our people, much of it in cooperation with these legislators. I am so happy for you and Courtney, but you will be greatly missed.
I could never replace Frank Brogan's energy and sense of humor, but I was proud to find someone who shares his passion and love for our people. Toni Jennings, thank you so much for agreeing to serve as the 16th Lieutenant Governor of Florida.
I love new faces and new ideas. But I know wisdom is needed as well. Believe me, you begin to appreciate wisdom a lot more once you turn 50!
But the people changed our constitution to put new faces in this chamber because they recognized that wisdom is not attained through years of tenure in elected office. It comes from raising a family. It comes from running a business. It comes from investing time and talent in the communities we call home.
That kind of wisdom teaches us to look forward with joyful expectation to all the promise and opportunity of the future. But it also teaches us to be practical, to judge soberly what we must do today.
My friends, we cannot appreciate the State of our State without recognizing first that our nation is in a state of war. American military forces are even now preparing to confront and overthrow a dictator who has oppressed his own people and threatened the world by supporting terrorism and building weapons of mass destruction. His defiance of the world cannot stand.
We pray for the success of our military forces, especially because so many of those serving are Floridians. More than forty two hundred members of the Florida National Guard are now on active duty here at home and around the world.
We honor all our military personnel, and I feel particularly proud of the men and women who serve in our National Guard.
As their Commander-in-Chief, I know how much we count on the Guard to respond to wildfires and floods; to protect our airports, seaports and other sensitive areas since September 11th; and to serve our communities, especially our youth.
I also am proud of the Guard because they live in every corner of our state and lead civilian lives of great purpose and distinction. In fact, 20 percent of them work in government at the state or local level.
And one of them serves as a Florida legislator. Representative Carey Baker is a small business owner from Mt. Dora. He has also been a National Guardsman since 1981 and currently serves as the First Sergeant in A-company, 2nd battalion, 124th infantry regiment, and was called up to active duty on December 28th.
Although his desk in this chamber remains empty this morning, First Sergeant Baker sent a message via video to you, his colleagues. He spoke from Fort Stewart, Georgia before his unit was deployed overseas. Here is a portion of his message:
Thank you, Carey.
Speaker Byrd and President King, I encourage you to ensure that every legislator has an opportunity to see his full message.
I also would like to salute Carey Baker's family -- his wife Lori and his five-month-old son Leighton -- who are joining us today.
Like thousands of Florida families, you have sent a loved one overseas to serve the cause of freedom. Thank you for your incredible sacrifice to serve our nation.
Members of the Legislature, we were elected to serve and to lead the 16 million people who are proud to call Florida home. But Carey Baker reminds us that some of our people are not home in their beloved state at this hour.
They are risking their very lives because they believe, as all Americans do, in the power of new beginnings. They believe in a renewal of American resolve and sacrifice.
We must put our faith and trust in the power of new beginnings. Some of our tasks we must undertake urgently, as we do when storm clouds gather on the horizon. Others we must embrace for the sake of future generations, planting seeds that grow slowly, but which will bear fruit for years to come.
I have every confidence that Florida remains the land of big dreams. Ponce de Leon was convinced that a fountain of youth lay somewhere among our oaks and pines and palms.
But Floridians have never needed a magic fountain to accomplish their dreams.
Our creativity, vision and perseverance will allow us to meet the challenges of the present day, as well as realize all the potential of the days to come.
That is who we are. That is what we're about. That, my friends, is the State of our State!
We must first tackle those issues that need the most urgent attention.
Chief among these is anticipating the impact that war will have on our economy, and on the livelihoods and safety of our people.
Remember that after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, we did more than merely mourn the loss of our countrymen in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania. Working together, we took action.
We shored up our important tourism industry through a $20 million commitment for Visit Florida. We created Operation Paycheck to retrain laid-off workers for new jobs in high demand sectors of our economy. We made domestic security a priority by funding a broad array of measures that have increased the safety of every Floridian and every visitor to our state.
We did all this in a very short timeframe, and with remarkable success.
With the same vision and resolve, we must now work together again. We must create a contingency plan that will allow us to take action quickly if we need to do so.
To strengthen our economy, for example, we should support our vital tourism industry, in part by marketing in-state travel opportunities for our own residents. We must also shift our economic development efforts - including through Enterprise Florida - to focus more aggressively on business retention and expansion.
And while we cannot expect the federal government to make our challenges go away, we must take full advantage of all the assistance Washington has already offered. We must aggressively pursue federal dollars, not only for defense and homeland security, but also for job training, transportation and Small Business Administration loans.
Together, these bold steps will provide greater economic security for our working families.
Of course, we must expand our domestic security efforts in all areas as well. Being a model for the nation is gratifying, but that is not our goal. Our goal is to ensure that the Sunshine State remains a safe place for all our people and all our visitors.
Additional economic and domestic security efforts will require additional funding from this Legislature in the current year.
Because this is a one-time urgent need for our people, I propose creating a contingency fund of $40 million, drawn from the nearly $3 billion in reserves we have built up over the last four years. Our state reserves should not be utilized recklessly, and I hope we do not have to use them at all. But creating this fund will help our state respond quickly to the urgent economic and domestic security priorities that may arise.
This does not mean I believe we should abandon the principles of fiscal discipline. Far from it.
Despite these accelerated expenditures, our state government must live within its means and not put additional burdens on Florida's working families during this difficult time.
In fact, I want to commend you for conforming Florida's corporate tax depreciation schedule to the President's economic stimulus package for the current year. Instead of decreasing revenues, this encouraged investment. Corporate tax revenues are expected to rise by over 20 percent during the next fiscal year and over the long term will be a significant boost to our state budget. Thank you for your leadership and your vision.
We must learn from the example of other states that have tried to tax and spend their way to prosperity. It's not working.
Despite the big hit to our tourism industry following September 11th, our state budget still grew that fiscal year as did, for example, our commitment to public education. In the current year, we are one of only three states to significantly increase K-12 spending. We've done this because fiscal discipline - and tax relief - helped our economy rebound quickly from September 11th.
We must also acknowledge that our efforts to strengthen our economy and protect our people are hampered by expensive constitutional amendments, especially the high-speed rail and class size amendments.
Make no mistake. The people voted for these two amendments, and we have a constitutional obligation to implement them. My budget recommendations implement Year One of the class size amendment, and we are moving forward with bids for Phase One of the high-speed rail amendment as well.
We must also keep in mind that the voters had two noble and enduring objectives in speaking through these amendments: to improve education and transportation infrastructure in our state.
But even without our urgent new priorities, high-speed rail and the class-size amendment are making funding decisions extremely painful. The budget I proposed in January demonstrated the severity of cuts that are necessary to implement only Year One of the Class Size amendment.
And that's only the beginning. We cannot fully implement these amendments solely by cutting spending. State costs for the first phase of high-speed rail could be up to $2.7 billion and up to $12 billion for full implementation. The class-size amendment costs will be even higher.
So I believe we must go back to the voters and have them make a decision with all the information in hand, information about the new challenges our state faces, and information about the massive tax increases that will be necessary to pay for them.
On a broader note, I believe it is high time that we reformed the ballot initiative process.
Don't get me wrong, I believe in direct democracy, and I would support a process through which our people could propose state laws, in addition to constitutional amendments. However, I also believe that checks and balances must be incorporated as well, just as they are among our three branches of government.
The bottom line is that pregnant pigs don't belong in our state constitution, and I believe sensible reforms of the initiative process are long overdue.
I understand that what I am asking this Legislature to do is very difficult. Creating an effective economic stimulus package on short notice is difficult. Maintaining fiscal discipline by not raising taxes is difficult. Asking voters to reconsider amendments, and reforming the ballot initiative process itself, is difficult. Sacrificing individual projects that are dear to each of us, is difficult.
But these difficulties should not deter us from thinking long-term, and beginning the work that will transform our state for decades to come.
I have identified three broad areas that I believe offer the most potential for statewide renewal. I ask you to join me in realizing this enormous long-term potential, in reading, economic diversification and supporting Florida's families.
Reading must and shall be an enduring core value of our state.
Reading is a child's first subject. Reading is the foundation for future learning in all other disciplines. Reading opens a world of opportunity for the disadvantaged. And reading is simply a joy, a gift of thoughts and ideas and stories that spark the imagination and warm the human heart.
I want to thank every Floridian who has supported our Just Read, Florida initiative. Through public-private partnerships, we have seen parents, mentors and whole communities embrace our goal of having every Florida child reading on grade level or better by 2012.
These efforts reinforce what we are now teaching in the classroom. And so my greatest thanks are offered to Florida's teachers, teachers who are using the latest, research-based methods to teach reading and help every child reach his or her potential.
One of those teachers joins us today. Her name is Carrie Walker from Wahneta Elementary School in Winter Haven. Carrie was a second grade teacher for 33 years before she originally retired, but this dedicated teacher is now back in the classroom part-time, teaching reading to 21 at-risk children in grades two through five.
Carrie believes that every child can learn, regardless of ethnicity or socio-economic status. She believes in holding children to high standards and encouraging them to meet those standards. She develops an individual reading plan for each of her students, always trying different intervention strategies to ensure that every child becomes a reader.
Carrie uses research-based teaching strategies, she uses assessments, she uses technology, and most of all she uses her heart. She feels she was born to serve children. She says, "Teaching is in me, I can't get it out." She even tutors her own family members and children from her church in her free time.
Carrie achieved remarkable results among her second graders, but her work this year among her at-risk students is especially impressive. 20 of her 21 students speak English as a second language, and 15 are recent immigrants to our great country.
Yet despite these challenges, Carrie is helping them make tremendous progress. She started them off with basic vocabulary and phrases, and now all of them are reading. These children are catching up, they are making progress, and it's because they have an excellent teacher who cares about each one of them.
Carrie is just one of the many dedicated teachers in our state who are committed to producing the next generation of readers. Carrie, please stand and let us honor you for your efforts.
Members of the Legislature, I ask you to continue to support Just Read, Florida! through 30 million state dollars next year. These funds will help train even more teachers to be as effective as Carrie Walker, and will also help expand reading programs in the upper grades.
I also urge your support for the $27 million increase in funding I have requested for the Excellent Teacher Program. Working together, we are on our way to making Florida lead the nation in the number of national board certified teachers.
I also ask you to prioritize economic diversification.
We should be proud of the work we have done together to create a business-friendly economic climate in Florida. Low taxes and less cumbersome regulation have led to remarkable job growth despite September 11th and the national economic downturn.
In fact, we created over 64,000 jobs last year, more than any other state, and over half a million jobs since January 1999. We should be immensely proud that so many of our people today are breadwinners.
Nevertheless, we must continue to break down barriers to job growth if we want our state to lead the coming national economic recovery. In anticipation of this greater opportunity overall, I urge you to address two issues that continue to place Florida at a competitive disadvantage with other states: Workers Compensation and Medical Malpractice.
7.2 million Floridians are gainfully employed in our state, many of them in jobs that involve taking risks that can result in injury and disability. This may be hard for us in public life to relate to, as the biggest injury we politicians suffer is usually a bruised ego!
But workers do get injured on the job in Florida. Nearly 75,000 workers suffered some kind of injury last year, from minor injuries to full paralysis. That's why Florida's Workers Compensation laws exist -- to provide benefits to injured workers funded by premiums paid by employers. It's a good idea, and in principle it's the same idea that's been enacted in every state in the nation.
However, Florida's Workers Compensation is not working well, especially in comparison with other states. Florida's employers pay premiums that are among the highest in the nation, yet Florida's workers receive statutory benefits that are among the lowest. Our costs for permanent total disability claims are almost three times the national average. Our medical costs for permanent partial disability are nearly twice the national average.
I urge you to pass a Workers Compensation reform package that reflects the good work completed by our task force. We should increase benefits for injured workers as they are recovering. We should establish a process that expedites - rather than delays - medical treatment. We should also ensure that medical experts - not lawyers - diagnose injuries and direct care.
We must create incentives for employers to improve safety at Florida's workplaces, as well as allow injured workers to receive medical care more quickly, and therefore recover and return to work faster.
Members of the Legislature, let's get this done. Reform is needed, there's broad agreement on how to do it, let's get it done for our workers and for our employers.
I urge you also to pass Medical Malpractice Reform.
The high cost of medical malpractice insurance - or the lack of it altogether - has created a crisis in our state. This crisis is not about costs, although ours are among the highest in the nation. This crisis is about the quality and availability of health care for our people.
Orlando Regional Hospital will no longer accept head and multiple-trauma victims because it can no longer guarantee emergency neurosurgery coverage. Three hospitals in the Tampa Bay area have closed their Obstetrics units, leaving women with fewer choices and less access. Wait times for mammography services have more than tripled. Many physicians have left our state, and many others, especially in South Florida, are practicing with no liability insurance at all.
To illustrate how this crisis impacts patients, I'd like to share with you a story about a young woman from Central Florida whom I'll call Anna. Anna had been trying for five years to have a baby, and late last year finally became pregnant.
She made an appointment with a doctor, but the group's entire practice closed up shop and moved to another state before she could get care. They said high premiums forced them to leave Florida.
So Anna made an appointment with a different doctor, but was turned away again, this time because the practice became so busy that they were no longer accepting new patients.
Weeks after first seeking care, Anna did eventually see a doctor named Armando Fuentes. Anna didn't show up alone. Her husband, her parents, even her in-laws were there. They were all so excited about the new addition to their family.
After the exam, however, Dr. Fuentes had to inform Anna and her family that her baby had already died in her womb. Anna had gestational diabetes, an easily treatable condition that went untreated in her case because she did not have ready access to a physician.
After Anna and her family left, Dr. Fuentes broke down and cried, frustrated that a young woman received medical treatment too late to save her baby.
Dr. Fuentes joins us today. Sir, let us thank you for your commitment to your patients and for continuing to stay in Florida to treat them.
Anna's story demonstrates that Floridians are already losing access to the medical care they need, because of the high cost of malpractice insurance.
Make no mistake: medical malpractice is very serious. Physicians, nurses, hospital workers and other providers should be held to the highest of standards, and those who commit negligence should be held accountable. But under our current system, less than half of the premium dollar even goes to the victim, after the lawyers, witnesses, taxes and administrative costs are paid.
That's why I favor comprehensive Medical Malpractice reform modeled on the work of the Academic Task Force composed of University leaders. We should improve quality, monitor outcomes, and discipline providers who commit negligence.
We should also enact a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages. This cap will limit runaway verdicts and prevent more talented and dedicated caretakers from leaving our state.
Members of the Legislature, the problem with our current Workers Compensation and Medical Malpractice systems is not that they are too expensive -- though they are. Our current systems limit opportunity and access that make Florida such a wonderful place to work and live.
I urge you to address both of these issues so that we can move forward on all the paths open to us to diversify our economy. These include creating more high-tech jobs based on our Centers of Excellence and our worldwide leadership in simulation, laser optics, and many other high-tech fields. They also include making Florida the home of the Permanent Secretariat of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. And they could mean using the Defense Department's Base Realignment and Closure process to cement Florida's position as a haven not only for military forces and defense-based contracting, but also for defense-related R&D and homeland defense innovation.
Reading and Economic Diversification remain two of my top priorities for my second term, but each of them is closely related to the third, which is supporting families and communities.
Over the past four years, I have seen how strong families make state programs less necessary, and how partnerships within strong communities make state programs work better.
But this vision really isn't about state programs at all. It's about the bonds of love and faith and friendship that our people make with each other.
This truth was brought home to me once again last month. To help honor Valentine's Day, Columba and I had a few friends over for dinner. They were a few of the many thousands of couples in our state who have been married for over 50 years.
These folks reinforced in me the conviction that the power of government is nothing compared with the power of the human heart. Their stories of commitment to each other and to their communities were so inspiring that I just had to share one of them with you.
Here are Bob and Billie Milner, they've been married 55 years, and they live right here in Tallahassee:
Bob and Billie also join us this morning. Would you two lovebirds stand, please?
I know what you're all thinking - the Milners look so young, maybe Ponce de Leon was on to something after all!
Stories like the Milners make me appreciate my own marriage even more. Columba, our entire state honors you for your commitment to arts education, and to fighting substance abuse and domestic violence. But I thank you simply for being my friend, for being with me during good times and bad. I couldn't do this without you. Thank you.
The Milners remind us that the strongest need in our society -- and the greatest power of the human heart-- is love. And government cannot love. It can protect and it can punish and it can tax and it can lend a hand. But government cannot love.
I ask you to join me in using your own "bully pulpits" to help nurture families and communities through love. Long-term, this will have a more positive impact on the future prosperity and happiness of our people than any government program ever conceived.
These, then, are the opportunities that are open to us. We must meet our present challenges head-on during this time of war. And we must also continue to look to the horizon, to help foster a society built on human compassion rather than government largess.
Many people look to government during times of crisis and uncertainty, and rightly so. But as government leaders, who should we turn to for hope and inspiration?
To me, there are three sources of inspiration that can help comfort and strengthen us in the days ahead, and give us hope for the years to come.
The first is our great history. America is a nation of pioneers and adventurers. Our own state history begins with intrepid explorers in a new world, and continues today with enormous courage -- and sometimes enormous sacrifice -- from our astronauts in the limitless expanse of the stars. When in doubt, our history can guide us.
Secondly, I am inspired by our very own people. No one should think that great Americans lived only long ago. I have always trusted in the wisdom and common sense of our people, but since September 11th I have also been inspired by their courage, and by their compassion.
I invited a handful of Floridians to attend this address, and graciously they have allowed me to share their stories. But there are 16 million stories out there, each one a testament to the enduring truth that as long our people are free, we can accomplish anything.
Lastly and most importantly, we turn for inspiration to the face of God. We live in difficult times, but no times are too difficult for Him.
With pride in our history, with confidence in each other, and with faith in Almighty God, we eagerly renew our commitment to the future of our beloved state of Florida.