Lieutenant Governor; Mr. Speaker; Fellow State officials, members of the Legislature, members of the Executive Council and fellow Mississippians. It is a humbling honor to come before you tonight for the first time as your governor.
I want to start by saying to my colleagues in the Legislature: Many of you were kind enough to be there for my swearing-in and listened to my inaugural address, and now, in less than two weeks, you're being subjected to hearing me speak again... These are the sacrifices you make as a public official.
My old friend, State Rep. Steve Holland, caught me in the hall today and said he'd read in the paper that this speech was going to last 40 minutes. He asked me if that were true. I said, "Only if you applaud a lot.'' He laughed and said we ought to be safe.
Steve did give me some advice. He said that it was always a good idea to put your best foot forward. With that in mind, allow me to introduce to you my greatest asset - my partner for the last 32 years and in the journey that lies ahead, my wife Marsha.
Already, I am faced with a good news/bad news situation. The bad news is that my great friend, former Representative and Speaker Pro Tem Robert Clark is not here to serve with me. The good news is that his son, Representative Bryant Clark, is here. And even better, I understand that you are going to name a state office building for Robert Clark. Nothing could be more appropriate or deserving, and I will support you in that effort.
I want to thank all of you in the Legislature who participated in my inauguration, and especially in our transition process and the jobs summit last month. Your support and counsel in helping us get started was needed and appreciated.
My view of state government is one where the executive and legislative branches are partners, not adversaries. We represent the same people, and they rightly expect us to work together. I'm dedicated to that proposition and again pledge to be a good teammate and a strong leader for our team.
I have heard Texas Gov. Rick Perry claim that his state has the constitutionally weakest governor of any state in the country. Well, I beg to differ. As former Gov. Paul Johnson Jr. used to say: As governor of Mississippi you have two choices: You can work with the Legislature, or you can fail. Well, I'm not into failure. So I look forward to working with each of you to make sure we all succeed. That's the way for our state to succeed - for Mississippi to do better.
My duty tonight is to report on the state of the state. My short answer as to the state of our state is simple: Not as good as it's going to be. I think we all know that Mississippi is not reaching its potential, and I think we also know that we have a moment of opportunity to do something about that.
The message of my inauguration was that now is the time to seize Mississippi's Moment. Tonight, I want to talk about giving our people, and our economy, the tools necessary to do just that.
First and foremost, my budget will state very clearly that we do not need to raise anybody's taxes - period. And because keeping taxes down is so critical to job creation, I consider my budget the first piece of our job creation and economic development plan.
I sense the Legislature's sentiment not to raise taxes, and I look forward to working with the Lieutenant Governor and President Pro Tem Travis Little and with Speaker McCoy and Speaker Pro Tem J.P. Compretta. I've already talked with Ways and Means Chairman Percy Watson and House Appropriations Chair Johnny Stringer as well as Senate Chairs Jack Gordon and Tommy Robertson.
I'm grateful for your attitudes of working together. But tonight's address is not about our budget; it's about our blueprint.
A budget is a plan reduced to numbers. Later this week, I'll make my budget submission including an administration-streamlining plan. Our budget will broadly accept the Legislation Budget Committee's recommendations. Then it will highlight some additional spending priorities I consider crucial and the ways to pay for them. But the budget is later; tonight, I'll stick to our plan.
Job creation is our state's most urgent need, and job creation will be the first immediate priority of my administration. Better, higher paying jobs can only result if we have a business climate conducive to creating and retaining those jobs.
An essential element of such a business climate is to keep taxes down. That's why I consider not raising taxes the first point of our economic development plan. Beyond that, raising taxes is the enemy of controlling spending, and controlling spending is the way to get our budget back in line over the next two years, which is my goal.
Getting back to economic development, allow me to introduce a man who made good in Mississippi and now wants to do good for Mississippi - our new Mississippi Development Authority leader, Leland Speed. Mississippi is fortunate to have someone of Leland's stature as its ambassador to the business world.
While Leland and the MDA plant the seeds of job creation, it is our job as state leaders to make the soil for those seeds fertile. One way to do that is to continue the work this Legislature began in 2002 to reform our civil justice system.
We must eliminate lawsuit abuse in Mississippi. Lawsuit abuse continues to threaten the quality of and access to health care in our state. Businesses will not locate in a place if they fear their employees and families cannot get quality health care.
We must do more to end medical lawsuit abuse. I propose an independent review panel to screen all medical liability cases. If the panel of experts says the case has no merit, then the plaintiff can still sue. But the review board's findings would be admissible in court, and the plaintiff would go forward under the English Rule. That is, the plaintiff and the plaintiff's attorney would have to pay the defendant's costs, if the plaintiff loses in court.
We not only need to revisit our tort system in medical liability; we need to do more to end lawsuit abuse, generally. We must have additional reform in the areas of joinder and venue. We have to stop the abuses of joining parties in lawsuits purely for the purpose of getting jurisdiction in the state courts and venue in certain counties.
Our joinder and venue loopholes allow huge mass tort suits to be filed in our state courts by thousands of non-Mississippi plaintiffs. That's wrong. It's unfair. It has to be stopped.
The cap for non-economic damages should not apply just to medical liability cases. There is already a cap on non-economic damages in workers comp and state tort claims cases. We should also have a reasonable cap in general civil liability cases.
The punitive damages cap in our statute should also be revised. For one reason, there must be certainty as to what it means. More work needs to be done to make liability and damages commensurate with fault. Improvements have been made in our joint and several liability rules, but we should tighten this up more.
Common sense tells us that we should do more to protect innocent sellers and landowners, but we should not allow them to be used as pseudo- parties just to get Mississippi jurisdiction and venue. Additional civil justice reforms are certainly needed, but laws are only one part of our legal system.
Judges and citizens are other key parts. To assist me in appointing the best judges possible, I have issued an executive order establishing a Judicial Appointments Advisory Committee. Its purpose is to ensure that no judge is appointed who does not have the needed ability, integrity and commitment to fairness to all.
And to make citizen service on juries in Mississippi more people-friendly, Sen. Billy Hewes has introduced the Jury Patriotism Act. This legislation would allow those called for jury duty to schedule their service within a six-month window. It is difficult to have a true jury of one's peers when so many people are excused from jury duty because they did not have enough time to rearrange their work or family schedule.
This idea has been endorsed by organizations as diverse as the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the voice of small businesses, and the AFL-CIO, and I am endorsing it tonight.
One of the most important elements for job creation in Mississippi is to have more of our workers get the skills needed to do the jobs. More than 80 percent of our work force doesn't have a college degree. That number will still be more than 70 percent for the rest of my life.
These workers make our economy hum. But we as a state are not directing enough attention or commitment to these working people. We all know that some businesses and industries have not come here for fear of not being able to find enough skilled workers.
Concern about work force issues is also very important to businesses that are already located in our state. In a recent survey, 94 percent of Mississippi employers said more state support for work force training should be a top priority.
We have a complex web of work force development programs. More than 10 state agencies have some work force development function. You can imagine, it's not easy to coordinate all this and make it user-friendly.
The result is: Many employers and workers are not utilizing these programs. That means Mississippi is not maximizing our work force training investment or the federal dollars allocated to us.
Our community colleges should be given more of the franchise in work force development and training. They have a proven record of performance in work force training and a well-deserved reputation for tailoring programs to meet specific needs and, thereby, create jobs. The community colleges have the ability, and they are ready and willing to take on more responsibility.
To ensure better coordination of work force development efforts, I propose we integrate the efforts of the state Work Force Investment Board with those of the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges. This will give consistent direction and focus to our overall work force development strategy.
A good example of how this would work is the WIN Center in Tupelo. All the involved state agencies, higher education, and the private sector work together, and both the employers and potential employees get the benefits of one-stop shopping.
Of course, a lot of employees will still get job training from their employers. To increase and improve these programs, I propose giving employers more incentive to upgrade the skills of their workers by reforming the job training tax credit. I am committing all of the resources of this administration to work force development, and I hope the Legislature will join me in this effort.
One of the most important industries in Mississippi produces only one product: Freedom. I want to thank the thousands of National Guardsmen and other Mississippians on active duty overseas who pay for that freedom every day. But our military bases do more than just protect America; they provide jobs for more than 35,000 Mississippians.
With another round of base closings on the horizon, I want to thank the Legislative Budget Committee for recommending that the efforts of the Mississippi Military Communities Council be put back under the control of this administration. We are going to make protecting our military bases a top priority.
Sometimes, with so many man-made economic opportunities around us, it is easy to take for granted the beautiful and abundant natural resources that are Mississippi treasures - both economically and recreationally. We are blessed to be a tourist destination in a fabulous location, here in the center of the fastest growing region of the country, flanked by two great waterways, with outstanding ports on the gulf.
Know that agriculture, forestry, catfish, seafood and other industries that spring from Mississippi's fields, woods and waters will always be prominent in our economic development efforts. The hospitality industry has far more potential for growth in our state, and industries that add value to our natural products must renew their momentum.
On Friday, I attended the opening of the Franklin Center for Furniture Manufacturing and Management at Mississippi State. Its goal is to help our furniture industry be more productive and stronger competitively. Speaker McCoy and I share a vision of helping our universities help our business be more successful, and that vision is embodied at the Franklin Center. Next week, we'll receive our first presentation on the McCoy Plan, and I'm ready to assist in its success.
This is my second Monday as governor. My first Monday, last week, I was in Greenville to announce the relocation of a Textron operation to Washington County, bringing with it 500 new Textron jobs plus many more at ancillary support operations.
I believe in the Delta and am committed to economic growth in the Delta. But I feel the same obligation to every other part of the state. If any area, or any group of people is left out, it holds back to the rest of the state. Economic development and job creation in a state as large and diverse as Mississippi cannot be "one size fits all.'' We'll develop economic strategies for each area of the state because every area needs and deserves the state's assistance.
Of course, the mother's milk of economic development is education. I share this Legislature's goal of making education the top funding priority. We're making progress in education in our state, and we have an outstanding state superintendent, Dr. Henry Johnson. I look forward to working with him to make sure no child is left behind.
The first requirement for a quality education is a quality teacher in every classroom. I commend the Legislative Budget Committee for recommending fully funding the teacher pay raise, and I concur in the recommendation. I want to let you know that the largest increase in my budget will be to restore some of what has been cut from our universities and community colleges.
My reason is simple: We want to make community colleges a key part of our work force development efforts and to make our universities the leaders in turning their research into commercial products and services. These institutions are where economic development and education meet, and that is too important a place to cut. Our institutions of higher learning are economic gold mines, and we must do a better job of mining them.
I've discussed the teacher pay raise, but we need other incentives besides just pay packages to recruit new teachers in our public schools. Mississippi faces a significant teacher shortage, and as any school superintendent will tell you, the problem gets worse every year.
To try to address this problem, this Legislature passed the Mississippi Teacher Shortage Act in 1998. An important component of this bill was to provide scholarships and other incentives to attract future teachers. These programs to recruit new teachers require those future teachers to be education majors and to be from Mississippi. But our state schools of education are producing fewer than 1,000 teachers for Mississippi schools annually while we need nearly 3,000 new teachers a year.
We should open the programs to students from out of state, if they are willing to stay and teach here; and we should allow these future teachers to major in subjects other than education. If we are trying to attract a future chemistry teacher to the Mississippi Delta, let's give incentives to teach to students who major in chemistry. In the process, we will attract new people who will decide to stay permanently in Mississippi education.
I support and will encourage expanding alternate certification to include more new ways to attract more people to the noblest profession.
Our current teacher retirement system pushes our best, most experienced teachers to leave the public schools after 28 years of teaching. For most teachers, that means they are departing when they are only 50 years old. Many of these teachers don't stop teaching - they just stop teaching in our public schools. They retire from the public schools and then teach either in private schools or commute to the schools in Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana or Arkansas.
Most of these teachers would love to continue teaching in our public schools - to avoid having to find a new job and the daily commute; but under the current system that makes no financial sense for them. It is time to stop letting pension policy drive our education policy. We can address this problem in a way that keeps these seasoned teachers, who are at the peak of their careers, and does so with no adverse effects on our state employees' retirement system.
I am aware of Sen. Alice Harden's work toward this goal during her years in the Senate, and I look forward to working with her and all of you in this effort.
Charter schools hold promise for improving education. Charter schools are public schools, which exchange increased freedom for more accountability, and they have demonstrated records of success around the country. However, Mississippi's charter school law is the weakest in the country, and we have only one charter school in the whole state.
We should reform our charter school law to encourage innovation and improvement in the public schools by giving parents and students more choices. I look forward to working with the Senate and House Education chairmen, Sen. Mike Chaney and Rep. Bubba Pierce, in charting a new course for charter schools.
Everyone in this chamber realizes discipline is a major problem in many of our schools. I promise you and the parents of Mississippi's half a million public school children, this governor will stand behind our teachers and administrators in reinstituting discipline in all our schools.
Another overarching goal for our schools should be the greater use of technology in our education initiatives. Technology has revolutionized the economy, the factory floor, the consumer sector; and technology has enormous potential to improve our children's education. It's past time to acknowledge that we can and must use technology more, and more effectively in teaching our children.
For too long, we have judged politicians' commitment to education by how much money they are willing to spend. We should be judging politicians' commitment to education by the results they demand and achieve for our children. As your governor, I'm willing to step up and support our education system, but I will be watching to make sure that support yields positive results for Mississippi's children.
Crime continues to be a statewide problem - especially drug crime. To combat it, I am restructuring my administration so that the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics reports to the Department of Public Safety, as was originally intended. This will unite our forces in fighting drugs and provide more support to local law enforcement across the state.
Let me take this opportunity to introduce the state's newest top crime fighters: Department of Public Safety Commissioner Rusty Fortenberry, Deputy Commissioner Melvin Maxwell, Highway Patrol Chief Marvin Curtis and Bureau of Narcotics Director George Phillips.
I will also be moving primary responsibility for homeland security from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency to the Mississippi Department of Public Safety. I want to recognize Robert Latham. He and his team at MEMA have done a fine job, but the focus of homeland security has evolved from the recovery efforts after a terrorist event to the detection and prevention of terrorist activity. With that in mind, it makes sense that Mississippi's homeland security efforts be directed from our law enforcement agency. MEMA and our first responders will still be heavily involved.
In the area of corrections, we incarcerate criminals to protect the public's safety. My goal is to house prisoners at the least cost. My administration will make increased use of county-owned regional jails and private prisons to save money.
We will be reopening the Delta Regional Correctional Facility at Greenwood. This should allow us to close some Parchman units, which are outdated and costing the state too much to operate. In addition, I ask this Legislature to grant me the authority to house state prisoners and different classifications of prisoners at the private Tutwiler facility. If the state of Alabama can house prisoners 12 miles from Parchman at 36 percent less cost than we can house them ourselves, common sense says we need to capture those savings for Mississippi - and with your help we will.
With that, let me introduce to you a familiar face - a man with the same job, but a new mission - Mississippi's Department of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps. Commissioner Epps and I look forward to working with Sen. Bunky Huggins and Rep. Bennett Malone.
A healthy Mississippi is one of my key goals, and that goes far beyond the care provided by the taxpayers through Medicaid; but Medicaid is an important part of the lives of hundreds of thousands of Mississippians. We have to start managing the program better. We must get control of Medicaid spending. Controlling pharmaceutical costs, pursuing disease management strategies and offering provider and patient education are ways this administration will more effectively run this program.
I am working on a plan with our new Medicaid Director, Dr. Warren Jones, and a key expert in this area, Dr. Wally Conerly, in streamlining our Medicaid processes and making sure we serve best and waste least. Help me in saluting Dr. Jones and Dr. Conerly.
Mississippians are the most compassionate people in the world. We are committed to providing quality health care to those who can not afford it - to those who really need it. But Mississippi taxpayers should not be asked, much less required, to provide free health care to those who can work but choose not to.
Parents who work two or three jobs to take care of their families should not be forced to pay taxes to provide free health care for people who are able to take care of themselves. The state's health insurance plan is critical to tens of thousands of Mississippians. It's time for us to look at how to reform and improve health insurance for state employees and teachers.
As important as corrections, crime, education, and work force training policies are to the future of our state, the family is still the foundation of our society and the starting point for everything we do. As governor, before taking a position on any proposal, I will consider its impact on Mississippi families. Government can not create a strong family, or a loving home, but, regrettably, government policies can unintentionally undermine families.
First, I will work with you, the Department of Education, and others to get more parents and families involved in their children's schools. Nothing would help education more.
I will propose a new law, which allows health care providers to not perform abortion services if they conscientiously object on the basis of religious or moral beliefs. Mississippi is one of only four states that do not provide any protection for the rights of conscience of health care providers.
If we're ever going to end the tragedy of abortion, we have to start by changing hearts and minds one at a time, and I think this is a good start. We who are pro-life have an obligation to promote other choices, like adoption. It is a shame that there are more abortions in Mississippi each year than there are adoptions. We need to make it easier for people to adopt.
In the last legislative session, Sen. Alan Nunnelee of Tupelo introduced legislation which I am embracing - a one-time tax credit of up to $5,000 to help adoptive parents with the legal expenses necessary in the adoption process. For parents who want to adopt a child into a loving home, they face a costly, bureaucratic process that makes it hard financially for them to adopt.
The Department of Human Services says the average annual cost to keep a foster child in their system is $14,250. Compared with the cost of the tax credit, the state would actually save money, while, more importantly, creating a new home for a child and extending a family.
Tonight I thought it important to share with you policy proposals to help create and retain more and better paying jobs; to make our communities safer; to improve our schools, all the way through adult education; to lead for a Healthy Mississippi; and for stronger families. I think these are good proposals. A lot of people have participated in their development.
Now, I want to work together with you to achieve these goals. I know you in the Legislature will have more ideas to contribute, and I look forward to that. We have some serious problems to address, but we have no problem we can't solve if we work together. And as I said last week, solving today's problems can be the springboard to seizing tomorrow's opportunities.
So, let me close with a thought or two on those enormous opportunities. People around the country underestimate Mississippi. They underestimate our people and our potential. What's worse, we too often underestimate ourselves. I ask you to join me in putting that kind of thinking behind us. We don't have to be last.
Look at Fred Smith at FedEx, or Jim Barksdale at Netscape or John Palmer at Skytel. Look at Faith Hill and Lee Ann Rimes; Morgan Freeman and Sela Ward; Jerry Rice and Brett Favre. Look at Leland Speed, who is a reminder that Mississippi and Mississippi companies can be the best - number one in the nation.
I've lived that dream in my own life, and I'm determined, that working with you, we'll put our past problems behind us, and we'll quit hoping for something better to happen. It's time we made something better happen.
Yes, we can do better, but we're not stopping there. I have a vision for our state. I envision Mississippi in new, larger dimensions and bolder colors, leading the South and America by growing faster, working smarter, educating better and leaving no area and no group behind.I don't just envision a better Mississippi; I expect it.
I urge you to lift your horizons; raise your expectations for Mississippi. Surely, if we work together with that attitude, future generations will look back to the first decade of the century and say, "Those were leaders. They faced up to their problems, then they embraced their opportunities. They had what it took to seize Mississippi's Moment and make a difference for those of us who followed them.''
I ask you to join me in this vision.We can do it together. Thank you. God bless you. God bless Mississippi. And God bless the United States of America.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)