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March 2, 2004
Source: The Executive Office of The Governor

President King, Speaker Byrd, members of the Legislature, honored guests, and my fellow Floridians, good morning.

I am honored to be joined by my partner in life, Columba. She is a wonderful first lady of our state, and I am proud of her work for the people we serve.

In addition, I am fortunate to have as my partner in service, Lt. Governor Toni Jennings, who has done such a fine job for Florida over the last year.

In 2003, I had the pleasure and honor of welcoming 14 new Senators and 30 new Representatives to this chamber for the first time. This year, we are all veterans of the legislative process; having debated, deliberated, and negotiated critical issues for the good of the people we serve during the regular session, through the summer, and well into late autumn.

The faces in this room are now familiar. Very familiar. Very, very familiar. Seriously, I thank you for your dedication, and your tireless work for the people of Florida.

Today we welcome one of our own back from the battlefield. Representative Carey Baker returned home from serving his country just four weeks ago and is here today to continue his service to Florida. We are extremely proud to welcome him back to this chamber and are grateful for his safe return.

Last month we welcomed home almost 2,000 soldiers of the Florida National Guard from the war on terror. As we speak, another 1,000 Florida men and women are making their way to foreign shores to continue the effort.

Some, like Florida Army National Guard Sgt. Roy Wood, won’t make it home. In 2003, Sgt. Wood walked away from his job as an emergency room surgeon at Lee Memorial Hospital in Ft. Myers to serve with his unit in Afghanistan.

He felt so strongly about the mission and the soldiers with whom he served that he volunteered to go, even though he had to give up his Major’s rank and serve as a Sergeant to do it. He served proudly and courageously, saving the lives of both soldiers and civilians.

He was the first Florida National Guardsman to give his life serving in Afghanistan. To his wife, Hana, who is here today with their two children, Roy Andrew and Caroline,
I offer my deepest condolences for your loss.

It has been said, “God grants liberty only to those who love it and are always ready to defend it.” Hana, because of your husband, and the thousands who continue the fight, America will always be free.

We must acknowledge the great debt we owe patriots like Sgt. Wood. We should honor their service by ensuring that our actions, both in and out of this chamber, are worthy of their sacrifice. We must serve this state as honorably and effectively as they serve this country.

I believe we are on the right path.

Last year, I asked you to join me in an unshakable commitment to educating our children, diversifying our economy, and strengthening the bonds that hold our families together. Today, I thank you for honoring that commitment and ask that we continue on the path of progress for the people we serve.

As a result of your leadership, the state of our state is stronger than ever, because more children are learning in our schools and more students are graduating prepared for success.

We are stronger because we have built a solid foundation for progress and prosperity.

A foundation that attracts investment and opportunity like The Scripps Research Institute, as well as high value, high wage jobs, in cutting edge emerging technologies.

We are stronger because we recognize that government isn’t the sole answer to the most important questions, and we welcome community and faith based organizations as partners to serve the needs of Florida families.

Florida is in a better position to serve our people and face our future, and I thank the members of the Legislature for creating that opportunity.

In this country true opportunity starts with education. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark case that guaranteed equal access to education. The Florida Department of Education has created an outstanding chronicle of the progress we’ve made so far toward that goal, and I hope Floridians will take the time to experience this exhibit as it travels around our state.

Today, Florida is closer to fulfilling the promise of Brown v. Board than ever before, because the Legislature had the will to pass sweeping education reforms and demand more for our children. I applaud you for the courage this bold move required, and congratulate you on the remarkable success of this effort to date.

Next year, we’ll add voluntary universal Pre-K, and I urge you to provide the resources we need to train 9,600 pre-school professionals this year, and to create the framework for a comprehensive high-quality program focused on critical early literacy skills. As we increase the number of children ready to learn when they enter kindergarten, we decrease the number who will struggle, be retained, and require remedial help in higher grades.

Over the last five years, we’ve seen rising student achievement in schools across the state. This achievement crosses all ethnic, income, and county lines, proving there are no natural barriers to academic success, only fabricated excuses.

Our A+ reforms have replaced those excuses with expectations in Florida classrooms and made schools accountable for achieving them. Every year more educators answer that challenge and more students learn a year’s worth of knowledge or more in a year’s time. Children who were once left behind now find the support they need to reach their potential.

Children like Isaac Cuyler, a 5th grader at Riley Elementary School here in Tallahassee. Isaac struggled as a 2nd grader and again as a 4th grader. His parents and teachers thought it best to give him more time rather than push him forward unprepared.

Last year, Isaac improved from a level one, below basic reader to a level four, above grade level reader, making a 580-point gain in a single school year. That’s not learning to take a test, that’s learning to read.

Today, Isaac is an honor roll student who reads at a 6th grade level. He also anchors the school’s morning television show, competes in the Black History Brain Bowl, and is a candidate for advanced classes in middle school next year.

Isaac couldn’t join us today; he’s busy dazzling his teachers and demonstrating his reading skills on the FCAT. His parents, Catina and Isaac, Sr. are here, and with their permission, I’d like to introduce you to their son and his school through this video. (Video)

In addition to success stories like Isaac Cuyler and Riley Elementary, we now have independent confirmation that our education reforms are working for students across our state.

In 2003, Florida’s 4th graders were the only readers in the entire country to show significant learning gains on the National Assessment of Education Progress – four times the national average. These gains crossed all ethnicities as our minority students outpaced their national counterparts by similar leaps.

That’s Isaac’s class by the way, proving his kind of achievement is becoming the rule rather than the exception in Florida.

We must push this success into our middle schools as well. I ask you to support this goal by passing the Middle Grades Reform Act, and putting professional reading coaches in our middle schools. My budget funds reading coaches in half of Florida’s middle schools, with priority given to those with the lowest performance. These actions will give struggling students in grades six through eight the support they need to succeed.

We have driven accountability into our schools, and achievement is up among our students. The School Recognition Program has been the heart and soul of this success.

People rise to the challenge when recognized for the effort.

I strongly urge lawmakers to continue to fully fund this program. The people we serve live in the real world, where success is directly rewarded. Florida’s educators have dedicated their careers to teaching children, a job for which there will never be enough recognition or compensation. They are driving more success in our schools every year. Our teachers and students should be celebrated, applauded and rewarded for a job well done.

As student achievement rises in Florida, so do high school graduation rates. From 1998 to 2002, graduation rates rose steadily among all racial groups. In 2003 we raised the standards for graduation, replacing the 8th grade level competency test with the 10th grade FCAT. Despite this higher standard, graduation rates held steady or rose among every group.

We also saw improved results among students with limited English proficiency and those with disabilities. More than 80 percent of limited English proficient seniors earned a high school diploma or certificate last year, compared to 35 percent the year before. More than 87 percent of Florida high school seniors with disabilities completed high school with some type of diploma in 2003, a higher success rate than in years past.

This progress, like the other improvements, stretches across racial lines. The improved results reflect improved education in our state and expanded opportunity for the next generation of Floridians.

As more Florida students read and calculate math at grade level, we need to inspire and prepare them to set their sites on education beyond high school. Our unique College Board Partnership ensures more Florida students, especially those historically underserved, have access to higher education. The program provides professional development programs for teachers, college preparation in inner city and low-income communities, SAT preparation, tutoring programs, and information on college opportunities to families of students.

Since we created this program, the number of minority students taking advanced placement courses in Florida schools has risen by 94 percent. During the same period, we have more than tripled the number of students taking the practice SAT. In 2003 four times as many African American students took this college prep test than in 1998. Among Hispanic students, the number has risen by almost 500 percent.

More students of all backgrounds are preparing for higher education and more are entering Florida’s community colleges and universities.

Students like Norma Peñate, who is here today with her parents. Norma was born in Cuba and lived in Venezuela before moving to Florida with her family at the age of seven.

As a student at Miami Senior High, Norma worked hard to achieve. In her junior year, the school became one of the first to participate in a teacher development program offered by the College Board. At the workshop, teachers learned new techniques for identifying high potential students and introducing them to more challenging curriculum in the Advanced Placement program.

Erick Hueck, the school’s AP coordinator, encouraged Norma to challenge herself further by joining his AP chemistry class. After taking that challenge, Norma took advantage of the full range of college preparation classes offered through the College Board partnership, including six more AP classes, as well as the SAT and the ACT.

She’s not alone. In 2003, 65 percent of Miami Senior High’s 10th graders took the practice SAT, a 376 percent increase over 1999. During the same period, the number of students taking AP courses nearly quadrupled. These are more than numbers, they are students, young men and women who are reaching for their dreams and achieving them.

While earning her diploma, Norma also earned 24 college credits, enough to start her university career almost a year ahead. Today, she’s a junior majoring in accounting at one of the top ten accounting programs in the nation, the University of Florida. She’s earned a 3.9 GPA and will begin her Masters program in the fall as part of a five-year accelerated program.

Norma comes from a large family. Counting all the cousins, she has more than 200 relatives. She’s extremely proud to be the first one of any generation in her entire family to go to college. And we are extremely proud of her. Norma, would you please stand?

The College Board partnership has proven its value to Florida students and universities.

I ask you to protect this springboard to higher education, by making it a permanent part of our education system, one that is safeguarded by statute.

As we improve education and opportunity in our public schools, we must also plan for massive success in our community colleges and state universities. This year I’ve recommended increases in funding for these institutions to help meet the challenge before them. I hope you will make the same commitment.

I also hope you’ll take the action required to foster a vibrant, diversified economy that offers opportunity for our graduates to build careers and live their dreams here in Florida.

Over the past five years, we’ve made the right decisions to drive growth in our state. We’ve created a business environment that attracts innovation, investment, and jobs. We have also strengthened our commitment to Florida’s natural treasures.

We’re actively conserving environmentally sensitive land. Everglades restoration is ahead of schedule and under budget. We’re restoring the Loxahatchee and opening areas that have been closed for decades by pollution. Today a new marine sanctuary protects the Florida Keys, and conservation along the banks of the Suwannee spurs eco-tourism and the economies of eight rural counties.

From the River of Grass to Florida’s springs to the oceans that roll up on our shores, Florida will continue to protect the natural bounty and beauty of our state.

We are carefully balancing our growth and environmental protection – to create the best quality of life and business climate in the country. As a result, Florida is regularly on the short list for companies looking to expand or relocate and we are winning more of these competitions every day.

Today, Florida continues to lead the nation in job growth, a position we’ve held for the last 22 months. Our unemployment rate continues to drop and has been significantly below the national average for almost two years.

More people are working in the Sunshine State today, and they’re keeping more of their hard earned money. Since 1998 we have provided more than $8 billion in tax relief to the people we serve. It is their money, not ours, and I applaud you for putting it back into their hands.

The key to our success is the fiscal discipline that has become the hallmark of our efforts over the past five years. I recommended a $55.4 billion budget for Florida next year, a modest 2.6 percent increase over current funding.

If we adhere to this spending restraint and avoid creating new unnecessary debt, we will be able to fund Florida’s priorities at a significantly higher level than last year, and still return a total of $139 million to its rightful owners, the taxpayers of this great state.

We must also aggressively address obstacles to our prosperity. One of the biggest threats to our thriving economy is access to affordable health insurance for workers. More than 2.8 million Floridians are uninsured today, and double-digit growth in premiums each year makes it harder and harder for employers to offer this benefit to workers.

In January, I rolled-out a framework of comprehensive reform that will begin to address the underlying issues that are pushing health coverage beyond the reach of many Floridians. The solution will not be easy or simple, but I look to the public servants in this room to help us find the right answer for Florida, and I am confident will we succeed.

As part of that reform effort, Florida’s KidCare program needs our attention. KidCare was created to provide insurance to children who have no other access to coverage. Today the program serves 1.6 million children – 755,000 more than in 1998, and there are still more children waiting.

In addition to Medicaid, KidCare includes other valuable programs – specifically Medikids, Healthy Kids, and CMS. These non-Medicaid programs provide the critical safety net many parents need to ensure their children are protected. They are not offered as cheaper alternatives for parents who currently buy coverage through their employers.

Florida received additional federal funds in January, a bonus for fully using the federal dollars to serve Florida’s children in need. The new money will allow us to serve even more children. I applaud President King and Speaker Byrd for making KidCare a priority issue for this Legislative session. I look forward to having a bill on my desk in the next few weeks that will provide health coverage to more children.

As you address economic issues this year, I also ask that you recognize the importance of investing in economic development. Like education, it provides some of the greatest returns on taxpayer dollars.

We must invest in the projects, both incentives and infrastructure, that support our continued growth. We must retain and grow key industry sectors like manufacturing. We must prepare to move quickly to close deals that bring jobs to the people of Florida. We must build on our Centers of Excellence program to drive innovation and lure investment in cutting-edge emerging technologies.

We must protect our military bases and the $44 billion defense industry by aggressively defending our military installations in the 2005 base closure (BRAC) process. We must also find more ways to support the military men and women who serve their country from our state. I support the legislation proposed to help military families transition into our communities and our schools, as part of our effort to make Florida the most military friendly state in the nation.

Finally, we must make the investment in our rural communities so they too can be part of Florida’s success. I propose $174 million to support economic development in these areas, and hope you will join me in this commitment by giving struggling counties the resources they need, and the flexibility to use them effectively to serve their people.

The future of our state will be driven not only by the economic choices we make, but also by the values we choose. We are committed to serving the most vulnerable among us, to addressing issues that threaten our families, to finding families for children who need them, and to promoting and protecting the self-determination of Floridians with disabilities.

Teen substance abuse, including tobacco, adds tremendous stress to families and limits the futures of Florida’s youth. The latest studies show that we are making significant progress in the fight against drug abuse among students, and we will continue to press forward on that issue.

Florida has also had success reducing tobacco use among our young people. Since 1998, smoking rates have declined by 57 percent among middle school students and 37 percent among high school students.

Budget constraints put this important program in jeopardy last year. This year we need to make the program, and the funding to support, it a permanent part of Florida’s Department of Health. This money is important, but the real power comes from thousands of teens across our state who recognize the dangers of smoking and encourage their peers not to start.

Prescription drug abuse among adults in Florida is growing at an alarming pace, taking more lives than heroin and cocaine combined. We first noticed this trend three years ago and have been trying to take the innovative, common sense action to halt it ever since.

This year, once again, you will have the opportunity to create a prescription drug tracking system that will allow us to punish unethical providers, prevent addicts from obtaining the drugs they abuse, and protect the privacy of patients in Florida. I urge you to pass legislation to define this system, fund its creation, and help us fight prescription drug abuse in Florida.

I’ve recommended increases in funding for Florida’s most vulnerable residents, including those with developmental disabilities. Our goal should be to provide the services they need to maintain their independence and self-determination -- including supportive employment efforts to ensure Floridians with disabilities have an opportunity to work and contribute to their communities. In the last five years, we have built a record of support we can be proud of. But there is still more to do, because there are still Floridians waiting for critical services.

A number of these services are provided through Florida’s Medicaid system. Five weeks ago, I proposed a $13.8 billion Medicaid budget, over a billion dollars more than current funding, just to keep the programs we have today.

My recommendation was based on cost projections made in October. Last Friday, we learned that $13.8 billion won’t be enough. We’ll need another $710 million more —almost three-quarters of a billion dollars. We’re short $315 million this year and need another $395 million next year. Almost half of this new money will have to come from General Revenue.

This would be less appalling if it meant we were serving new groups of Floridians, but we’re not. Or if it meant we were serving Floridians better, but we’re not. We’re fighting a battle against reducing benefits, and we’re losing ground every day.

The cost of Medicaid continues to skyrocket in large part because the system takes a rigid, one-size fits all approach to service, including automatic price increases, benefits that are richer than private sector insurance, and unlimited use of services.

Plainly stated, double digit increases in the Medicaid budget can’t be sustained.

We must find a better way. A way that ensures more vulnerable Floridians receive the specific, targeted services they need without crippling other priorities like our schools, our environment and other critical programs

Today, I’m asking for your support to work with Washington in an unprecedented partnership to overhaul this broken system and create the flexibility we need for an effective program that provides increased access to services, greater dignity and personal power to vulnerable residents, and the predictability of costs that will be critical to protecting this system over the long term.

I know we can find a better way to serve Floridians who need Medicaid services, as well as the taxpayers who foot the bill. With your support, we will.

As we address the issues required to strengthen Florida’s families, we must also do our part to find families for children who need them, by finding permanent homes for the children in state care.

Children like Sharelle Patterson, who is here today. Sharelle has been in state care since she and her five brothers and sisters were removed from an abusive home in 1997. She’s lived in a number of foster homes as well as a group home for girls. Over the years, most of her brothers and sisters have been adopted.

Last year, at the age of 15, Sharelle took matters into her own hands. She asked a teacher who had been influential in her life, her ROTC instructor, Marine Master Sergeant Lawrence Patterson, to adopt her. He and his wife, Tanya, said yes, and started the process last fall.

Sharelle moved into her new home on January 9th. The adoption becomes final next month, but they are already a family. Sharelle, Tanya, Lawrence -- The Patterson Family -- will you please stand? Congratulations!

There are more than 4,000 children like Sharelle in DCF care today, including her younger sister. In November, we launched the No Place Like Home initiative to find Florida families like the Pattersons, who will open their hearts and homes to them.

We’re actively looking for the right families, and streamlining the adoption process to remove the obstacles and frustrations that have been part of the process for far too long. I ask you to support these new families by approving the funds required to support adoption in Florida.

We are committed to supporting Florida’s families, but government will never be the full answer to their needs. Our state is blessed with an incredibly strong network of community and faith-based partners that offer a helping hand, provide counseling, and teach skills required to build strong families and hold them together.

Partners like Pastor Ken Scrubbs from the First Baptist Church of Leesburg, whose ministry provides mentors to 650 elementary school students and programs to encourage parents to become active participants in their children’s academic and social success.

Partners like Francois Leconte, CEO of Minority Development & Empowerment in Broward County. His organization provides services and support to more than 6,000 Haitian and Caribbean immigrants every year, to help them start their new lives here, become self-sufficient, and contribute to the community that welcomed them.

Today, the people of Haiti are in our prayers as we hope for a peaceful resolution to a dangerous and difficult time.

Gentlemen, I thank you for coming today. I applaud your commitment to the people in your communities, and I value your partnership and friendship. Your helping hands extend our reach to serve more Floridians.

We will continue fostering partnerships among community and faith based groups, other non-profit partners, and state government to ensure that Florida is not only the best place to build a business, it’s a supportive place to raise a family.

During this legislative session, we must never forget that what we do here limits or expands opportunities for people in this state. The decisions we make today will determine the future of Florida long after we have left public life.

Issac Cuyler, the young man in our video, represents that future, and our responsibility.

Isaac is a member of what will be the first graduating class of A+ reforms. The decisions we made five years ago improved the quality of education for Isaac and his peers. But our job is far from over.

Next year, as he moves into 6th grade at Griffin Middle School, we need to continue to support and encourage his achievement by passing the Middle Grades Reform Act and putting reading coaches into middle schools.

In four years, Isaac will enroll at Godby High School. We need to make sure the opportunities provided by our College Board partnership still exist when Isaac and his classmates arrive.

Florida’s community colleges and state universities offer the finest education at the most reasonable prices in the country. We should continue to work with these institutions to ensure this same educational opportunity and value is available to Isaac when he’s ready for college – and it’s clear he will be.

Finally, as Isaac prepares for success, we must make sure Florida offers ample opportunity for him to build his dreams here. We must continue to make the right decisions today to build a strong, diverse, sustainable economy for Isaac, the 2.6 million other children in Florida schools today, and the millions that will follow. Access to affordable health insurance is the greatest threat to Florida’s working families today – and I ask that you make finding a solution a top priority.

Parents across our state tell their children that dreams have no limits. They need our support to keep that promise.

It will take the wisdom to choose the right direction, and the will to act upon that decision.

It will take the strength to hold fast to the principles that work, and the courage to change what doesn’t.

It will take leadership, and we have it.

I thank you for your commitment to Florida and the people we serve. The legacy of your service will be a bright future of hope and opportunity for all who live and work in Florida.

I look forward to working with you to ensure the state of our state continues to grow stronger every year.

Thank you, and God bless our beloved state.