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This page contains a single entry by Westley Annis published on April 30, 2007 8:53 PM.

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Gov. Blanco's Opening Address to the Louisiana Legislature

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Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, Lieutenant Governor, State officials, members of the legislature, my Cabinet and staff, my family, and special guests: Welcome back. Today, I have the distinct honor of opening our fourth and final regular session. Now - I did say final, but, I know some of you are really going to miss this arena, so I could still bring you back for two or three more special sessions!

We have entered a period of robust recovery. Louisiana's economy has rebounded. New jobs are here. Tax revenues are up. The oil and gas industry is booming. Aggressive economic development and fiscal discipline have paid off. Our economic outlook is strong and growing steadily.

This is a time of renewal. This is the time to make bold investments in our future.

Last month, I announced that I would not run for Governor again. In spite of the media speculation, let me announce one more time that I believe there's life after politics, and I'm going to have one! I hope my decision allows us to focus on what's best for Louisiana, and not on election-year politics.

Nearly half of you are ending long and distinguished public service careers with this Session. For many of you, this may be your final chance as a legislator to leave a lasting legacy. On behalf of a grateful state, I want to thank you for your service. Please stand and be recognized if you are completing your final term.

We have a lot of work to do. So, let's chart the course for our future.

Education is our future. Right now, we can make the single largest increase in education funding ever in Louisiana's history. We can invest one-half of the new state money - over $600 million - in education. This investment will place Louisiana on center stage - where we belong - as education leaders.

Legislators make careers out of running on education platforms. We all want to be champions of education. This is the best chance we've had - and for some of you, your last chance - to be real champions - and actually put education first. This is no time for excuses, it's time for action.

We've watched Southern states like North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and others make significant investments in education. We've seen their outstanding results. We were left behind. These states have solid progressive economies. They had the foresight to begin with real and sustained investments in education. We need the same vision. By making this investment, we will accelerate our momentum!

Investing in education is not enough. We need more than money. We have to change the way we think about ourselves and believe in our own capacity to succeed. There is no reason - no real reason - that the people of Louisiana can not stand tall with the best and the brightest. Given the same education opportunities, a child born in this state has the exact same potential as a child born in Massachusetts or New York or California or anywhere in this country. It is up to us to change the paradigm of how we view education and how we can raise expectations for every single child. It's up to us.

We have choices. Do we want to be players? Do we want to compete? Or do we want to stand still, or even worse, fall further behind? If we want to be in this game, we've got to act now to educate all of our people. And that's what we're going to do.

The knowledge-based economy is upon us. This month, the media reported a widespread concern of Louisiana employers. They claim that our "high-school graduates are ill-prepared for 21st century jobs." LABI said a top worry for 3,500 statewide businesses is the lack of well-trained workers.

To be players in this knowledge economy, we must build on recent progress and continue smart investments in our human capital.

I'm asking you to give our students a "High-Five" for academic success. Invest in these five areas.

First. Put $30 million into expanding the proven LA-4 Pre-K program. All at-risk four year-olds deserve access to a rich learning experience that gets them off to a right start.

Studies show that quality Pre-K impacts a child's readiness to succeed in the classroom. Just two weeks ago, Louisiana was one of only two states recognized as a national champion of Pre-K. By taking this next step, we will send our students to the head of the class!

Second. Provide $16 million to fully fund BESE's high-school redesign proposal, including dual enrollment. We've got 40 percent of our students dropping out of high school. This has to stop. We have to get serious. By investing in education, we will cut the dropout rates in half!

Investing in Pre-K on the front-end - and high-school redesign on the back-end - forms powerful bookends for our K-12 system.

Third. Invest in our teachers. They have a right to decent pay. Give our teachers a pay raise - get us to the Southern Regional Average - and get us there npw!

Twenty-four hundred dollars for every teacher - in addition to any MFP formula increases - will get us there.

To recruit and retain good teachers, we need competitive salaries. Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia - all of our neighbors are giving pay raises this year. Our college and university faculties need pay raises to stay competitive, too. We don't have a choice. We're talking about our children. We must push ahead.

And don't forget the school support workers. They deserve raises, too!

Fourth. Make college affordable for everyone. If you do this, more high school graduates will be knocking on the doors of our colleges and universities. That's a good thing!

Louisiana benefits when the doors of higher education are open to all students who work hard and want to succeed. Many in this state are not enrolled in colleges because they don't have the money to do so. They should not be denied for financial reasons. I'm asking you to invest $15 million in the state's first need-based financial aid program.

We have students here today from Southern University and from Leadership LSU. Let's welcome them. They are being encouraged to get involved in public service. Some of them will be sitting in your desks in future years! There are more citizens who wish they could afford opportunities like this. Invest in need based aid. Make college more affordable!

Fifth. Fully fund the higher education formula. Legislators have talked about this for a quarter century, but wouldn't do it. Get it done. Give our colleges and universities competitive funding.

We're going to help the handful of campuses that are at 100 percent of the formula, too. Also, colleges and universities damaged by the storms need $10 million to fully recover.

If you make these five key education investments, you will give our students - and our state - a winning High-Five! And you will be proud to be known as the Education Legislature!

For too long, Louisiana has been trapped in a cycle of what I call "have to" spending versus "want to" investing. We're in the top 10 percent of states that "have to" spend extraordinary amounts on poverty-driven social services - services like our prisons and indigent care. We're near the bottom of states in our ability to invest what we "want to" in quality of life improvements.

Investing in education is the only way to reverse this dynamic. Poverty is just too expensive. Wouldn't it be nice to spend more money where we want to and less money where we have to?

Charting the course for our future means investing in our own workforce. State workers have not seen general pay raises for over 16 years. These are the workers who are our nurses, our social workers, our public safety officers, our wildlife and fisheries agents. Police and firefighters in communities large and small, put their lives on the line for us every single day. These are the people who hold us together. I'm asking you to give them modest annual pay raises of $1,500.

Charting the course for our future means investing in our infrastructure. Along with education, solid infrastructure investments will spur the economy. We don't need a national report telling us our roads received a failing grade to know we have a problem.

Our roads are crumbling! Your constituents want decent roads. We have money for improvements - $450 million dollars, more than half of last year's surplus, will go a long way towards improving our roads and highways.

Last December, this Legislature made the expensive decision to refuse road improvements. What did this delay cost? Over $28 million in inflationary losses. Every day we delay, prices go up, and we get less road for our buck.

If you want to complete at least one priority road project in every parish, VOTE FOR ROADS!

If you want to improve LA-1 - a key route for the oil and gas industry - VOTE FOR ROADS!

If you want to improve I-10 and I-20, VOTE FOR ROADS! AND

If you support I-49 - and I know you do - VOTE FOR ROADS!

If you want to repair, expand and improve our roads, you simply have to vote to raise the cap. Two-thirds of this legislature needs to agree to invest surplus dollars in one-time projects, like roads. Raise the spending level for this year alone - raising the cap will not affect the bottom line of future years.

If you're against roads, fine. Vote against a one-time raise of the cap. Then go home! Tell your constituents they'll have to wait for the next legislature to raise the cap and fix the roads - at an even higher cost. They'll be thrilled. Trust me.

Don't waste a minute more in making this common sense investment!

Charting the course for our future means investing in hurricane protection and coastal restoration. We must restore our wetlands. We've engaged in a long - and increasingly successful - fight with the federal government for the resources to build up our natural storm defenses. As we ask America to invest in our coastline, it's only right that we continue investing, too.

Let us be the generation of leaders that had the courage to invest in the greatest environmental restoration effort in American history. Let us be the generation of leaders that turned the tide around and started on the path to restore God's country, America's wetland.

Don't deny our people this protection. Raise the cap to invest an additional $200 million in hurricane protection and coastal restoration. And do it now!

Charting the course for our future means expanding economic development. With your help, we have been changing the face of doing business in Louisiana.

Just in the last three years, we've passed new incentives for job creation. And we cut taxes. We cut the sales tax on manufacturing machinery and equipment. We cut the corporate franchise tax on debt. We cut taxes by making permanent the Investor Tax Credit; and we cut state sales tax on natural gas and utilities.

Let's make targeted tax cuts. I'm now asking you to reduce taxes on utilities for businesses. And help our families, too. We can pass a back to school sales tax holiday. And we can cut taxes for families with children.

As you know, my economic development team is aggressively pursuing more than one-hundred leads with a potential capital investment of $13 billion. The largest lead we are pursuing is the ThyssenKrupp Steel Mill. In December, you set aside $300 million as a down-payment to secure this project. Alabama has since put up $400 million.

Let me be clear - we are very much in the running. I'm asking you to set aside an additional $100 million to match Alabama's commitment. In the event we land the steel mill, I will ask you to immediately raise the cap so that we can access the $300 million in infrastructure funding already set aside.

Whether or not the mill comes to Louisiana, we're winners. We've shown that we are major contenders, beating out almost 70 locations to land in the top two. No one can stop us now. Louisiana can and will compete on the world stage.

Charting the course for our future means improving the health care delivery system. I'm asking you to invest over $184 million in health care.

We can start with our children. Just as I'm urging you to expand Pre-K, I'm asking you to expand health care coverage for at-risk children, too. Healthy children are better students, and grow into healthier adults.

Let's also increase access to preventive care by investing in community health clinics. Preventive care not only relieves the burden on hospital emergency rooms, it saves lives!

We're not just addressing, health insurance, but property insurance, too.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita made clear that property insurance is not only unreliable, it's unaffordable and almost unavailable. Too many people were left abandoned by their insurance companies. These companies overreacted to a singled event. This legislature can not go home without addressing the insurance crisis.

Commissioner Donelon and I have proposed a package of legislation for your consideration. This plan has the potential to change the dynamics of our marketplace. The bottom line is, we must attract more insurance companies to sell policies in Louisiana. Our package includes:

A Consumers Bill of Rights, because consumers deserve to clearly understand not only what is covered by their insurance policies, but what is not covered.
Premium reductions as incentives for property safety upgrades.
Reasonable statewide deductible ranges based on property location.
Decreasing the number of policies covered by Citizens' Insurance Company, the State's insurer of last resort; and Matching grants to attract qualified insurers to write new policies in Louisiana.
Members of the Legislature, we have an unprecedented opportunity before us. We can address the insurance crisis, increase access to health care, expand economic development, cut taxes, and improve our roads and infrastructure. And we must seize this opportunity to make history with our education investments.

Everywhere I go, people ask me, "How is Louisiana doing since the storms?" I tell them that our people are working hard, they've done a lot, but there's much more to be done. It has not been easy, but it has been inspirational. They live and work with so much courage, so much endurance and so much fortitude.

They laugh. They cry. And in the morning, each and every day, they begin anew, putting the pieces of their lives back together. How are they doing? They're doing more than most Americans ever thought about doing. They're our heroes, and we'll continue to stand by them.

Louisiana is coming back, and we're coming back strong! Thank you, God bless Louisiana, and let's get to work!

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