"Thank you Mr. Lieutenant Governor and thank you Mr. Speaker. It is a privilege to be here with all of you this evening, standing shoulder to shoulder as we reflect on our accomplishments and set our goals for the work yet to be done.
To each member of the Mississippi Legislature: What an honor it is to serve the people of Mississippi with you at this special time. In just two short years, we have worked together to bring about positive change in our state. I thank you for your diligence and your dedication.
To Mississippi's first lady and mine, I want to thank you for putting up with us all. The early mornings and late nights. Through storm and sunshine, she is always there. To help Blair Batson Hospital, or Susan G. Komen, or Smithville, or Read Across Mississippi — she is always there. She is the wind beneath Mississippi's wings and mine, and she is forever my first lady.
As I began writing this address some weeks ago, I reflected upon Psalm 126, which says, 'The Lord hath done great things for us, whereof we are glad.' Tonight, let us see why we should be glad.
Two years ago we began our journey together. Our goal was simple: We would accomplish great things for all Mississippians.
In those two years, my administration has endeavored to work with you to advance the common good. Realizing that all power held by the government comes solely from the authority of the governed, the Mississippi Constitution plainly says, 'All political power is vested in, and derived from, the people; all government of right originates with the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole.' With unwavering acceptance of this doctrine we endeavored to provide an environment where all could rise together.
We understand that a vision without action is just an illusion, so we set about with four fundamental beliefs guiding our plan for the future.
First, we believe every Mississippian should have the opportunity to be gainfully employed right here at home;
Second, every Mississippian must have the opportunity to learn from the best educational system we can offer;
Third, we believe that every Mississippian deserves to be born into a mature, two-parent family;
Finally, we believe that every Mississippian should be certain that his or her tax dollars are put to proper use.
I believed, then, as I do tonight, that these four goals achieved together will create a Mississippi of limitless opportunity. Let us see how the plan has worked thus far.
I have often said we can make Mississippi the most job-friendly state in America. When a Mississippian has a job it changes everything. A Mississippian with a job is less likely to need public assistance, is more likely to contribute taxes to the state treasury, is a strong example of responsibility to his or her children and is more likely to vote, to participate in the community and to avoid crime. Each day as Governor, I make it my job to ensure more Mississippians have a job of their own.
You and I have helped create an economy where the unemployment rate has dropped from 9.4 percent when we took office to 8.3 percent. In the two years since we began our work, Mississippi has added nearly nine thousand jobs through our economic development efforts.
Last year, at this address, I went through a list of new companies that had moved to Mississippi as well as those existing industries that had expanded. I thought about doing the same thing again this year, but 2013 was such a successful year for economic development in Mississippi, that if I listed all our achievements, you probably could not make it to dinner on time.
Instead, I will let you know what outside experts have been saying about economic development in Mississippi.
Area Development Magazine, a national publication that focuses on site selection, rates Mississippi as the No. 9 state for doing business; as the No. 2 state for both competitive utility costs and permitting speed; and among the top five for overall cost of doing business. CNN Business News reports that Mississippi is the fifth-best state in America for entrepreneurial success. Expansion Solutions Magazine has named our state among the top five for advanced manufacturing excellence, and the Fraser Institute says Mississippi is the second best place in the world to invest in the oil and gas industry.
Perhaps the greatest indicator of success is our State's Gross Domestic Product — the sum of all financial production and growth in our economy. For the first time in Mississippi's history, our state reached $100 billion in GDP. The American Legislative Exchange Council ranked Mississippi among the top ten most successful states for economic outlook, and Area Development Magazine says, 'Mississippi is on an economic roll.' I could not agree more.
Certainly, we can always do better, but these standings indicate we are trending upward, and the world has taken notice. We are very proud of the companies who have traversed the globe to make Mississippi home. One we are particularly proud to welcome to our state is Yokohama Tire Company, which will bring thousands of jobs to Clay County. I am honored to have as our guest tonight, sitting in the northern balcony, the President of Yokohama Tire Manufacturing Mississippi, Mr. Tadaharu Yamamoto
Yokohoma Tire could have placed its new plant anywhere in the world. Every state in the nation would have been honored to have this great company and its new facility. The site selector looked at over a thousand possibilities and settled on the very best — Mississippi. Mr. Yamamoto, I thank you for your confidence in our state, and I look forward to deepening our friendship and our business ties. I wish your company many years of success in Mississippi.
In order to offer Yokohoma and our existing industries the world's best work force, we must continue to make career training programs all they can be. To make certain of this success, I have asked Mr. Jay Moon, executive director of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association, to lead the State Workforce Investment Board and, along with our great community colleges, make our workforce second to none. Abraham Lincoln is credited as having said, 'Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.' We must prepare our workforce for the advanced skills needed in today's economy. Nothing is more critical to our success. Let us set about to sharpen our ax together.
Soon, with the assistance of the Mississippi Department of Employment Security, the State Workforce Investment Board, and the state longitudinal data system, we will unveil a state-of-the-art system matching job seekers with employers. The system, along with its app, will be unlike any other in the nation. It will put job seekers and employers a click away from success. Finding a job or a qualified employee in Mississippi will be easier and more effective than ever. The Mississippi Works web site will add this important feature very soon. I will just say, stand by to be amazed. And I assure you, this website works.
I am also very pleased to announce a revolutionary health care effort tonight. Through a partnership with the University of Mississippi Medical Center, GE Healthcare, North Sunflower Medical Center, and C Spire, we are launching the Mississippi Diabetes Telehealth Initiative. This groundbreaking pilot program will use telehealth technology to pair resources from the University Medical Center with health care providers and 200 of the most complex diabetes patients in the Mississippi Delta. This coordinated care approach will improve disease management and health outcomes for generations to come.
Finally, let me remind you that 2014 has been designated as the Year of the Creative Economy, a Mississippi Homecoming. This year we will focus on that segment of the economy, which provides some 60,000 jobs and generates an enormous economic impact in our state.
2014 will see hundreds of creative events from concerts to plays to movie premiers all across Mississippi. We are asking Mississippi artists who have moved away to come home for one special event to share their talents live with their fellow Mississippians. We aim to show the world that Mississippi is the birthplace of America's music, but we also cook and write and act and paint and dance and direct. This will bring thousands of visitors to Mississippi. Let us have a homecoming and invite the world.
One of Mississippi's creative artists is with us tonight. Bruce Levingston, a young man from the Delta, began to play the piano at age four and has become a leading figure in American music. Because of his immense talent, some of the world's most prominent composers have written works for him to premiere. He has played in venues as diverse as Carnegie Hall, the United Nations, Lincoln Center and Power APAC school here in Jackson. He has been hailed by The New York Times as 'one of today's most adventurous musicians.' Ladies and gentlemen, Bruce Levingston.
Last year, we enacted the most transformational public education reforms in 30 years. We came to this action because we recognized that serious problems exist within our state's education system.
When we set about to develop our Education Works agenda, we found troubling evidence of the struggles in Mississippi classrooms. Just two weeks ago, Education Week released its Quality Counts ratings that placed Mississippi as No. 51 for K-12 student achievement. We can all agree this is unacceptable.
Political posturing and finger-pointing do nothing to help these children, so we have worked together in these past two years to offer solutions. Not through some arbitrary formula or standards dictated by the federal government but by common sense priorities. Our Education Works reforms will help prepare children for lifelong learning by improving literacy skills and ending status-quo social promotion.
In one eventful year, we implemented the third grade gate to require reading proficiency; we launched a merit pay program; we raised standards for teacher training programs and created scholarships for bright young students who want to teach; we established a collaborative pre-K learning program; we funded Mississippi Building Blocks; and we created a public charter school system.
With these priorities, we increased our targeted education spending by $18.6 million and also directed $22.6 million to the National Board Certified Teacher Program and $6 million to Teach for America. The total appropriation for K-12 education for fiscal year 2014 exceeds $2.3 billion. This is more funding for education than has been appropriated in any of the past four years.
With the Legislature's help, we will increase this funding for the upcoming budget cycle. My fiscal year 2015 executive budget recommendation includes an additional $22 million for education spending. This includes our existing Education Works priorities, as well as $16 million for a new school repair fund to be administered by the Department of Finance and Administration. Placing these capital expense aside specifically for K-12 education will go a long way toward repairing leaking roofs in our classrooms without contributing to the rising tide of costs in the administration building.
Even with these successes, our work in education is far from finished, and there are new efforts that I will call on the Legislature to adopt. However, we must make our first priority implementing the reforms we have already passed.
I recently released Opportunity Mississippi, which is my strategic plan for this state. In that document, I outlined benchmarks for our Education Works reforms:
College and career readiness among high school students has become a centerpiece of change and advancement. We must aim to reduce the high school dropout rate 10 percent by 2017. If properly implemented, the other reforms we have enacted will help us achieve this goal.
Through the third grade gate, we should also work to document a 20 percent increase in literacy attainments for third grade students by 2017. I call on the Legislature to work toward providing enough funding for this essential program to establish a ratio of one reading coach for every nine teachers in our highest-need classrooms.
I have long been an advocate for increasing teacher salary, and I believe we should pay good teachers well. Last session, I requested and you approved of funding for a pilot program to establish a merit pay system. My strategic plan calls for implementing merit pay in at least 70 percent of Mississippi school districts by 2018. It is my hope that revenue will be sufficient to increase the current merit pay appropriation by a substantial amount and fast track the pilot program to get raises to teachers sooner.
My fiscal year 2015 executive budget, like my previous budget, has also requested that the Legislature fully fund the National Board Certified Teacher program. Achieving this status can mean a $6,000 raise for a teacher. Some 3,500 teachers in Mississippi are board-certified. We are doing an excellent job of encouraging teachers to pursue this certification, and I want to see Mississippi increase its number of board-certified teachers 25 percent by 2018.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has recognized Mississippi's efforts in this arena and has awarded our state a grant of $350,000 to help support teaching students who wish to pursue board certification at the outset of their careers. This program should help Mississippi recruit another 1,000 teachers for board certification in the next few years. All of this will translate into a greater number of highly qualified teachers in Mississippi classrooms, which will mean better outcomes for students.
Finally, I ask the Legislature to grant the request in my executive budget recommendation to provide $1.5 million to conduct a pilot program to examine the use of the ACT as the high school exit exam in lieu of other assessments. This pilot will cover the cost of the ACT for every high school junior in Mississippi in the upcoming school year.
This program will not only allow us to obtain a more accurate measure of student achievement, it will benefit students by providing them with access to a test that has practical use in their lives as a college entrance exam.
It will also save us money because Mississippi's current group of high school assessments costs more than $4 million per year. Let us make this common sense change now and get on with preparing our children for success in the real world and stop teaching for the test.
Our third objective for success should be for every Mississippian to be born into a mature, two-parent family. Our Healthy Teens for a Better Mississippi program has conducted community meetings and seminars all across the state. We have involved schools, churches, families, health care professionals and, most importantly, teens, in community discussions regarding decision-making and healthy behavior.
We have started making a difference. According to the annual report of the Mississippi State Department of Health, our state's teen pregnancy rate declined by 10.3% in 2012.
I believe we have also done an admirable job in protecting our children, both born and unborn. By strengthening the Child Protection Act and by requiring that abortionists obtain admitting privileges at local hospitals, we are protecting women's health. But let me be clear, on this unfortunate anniversary of Roe versus Wade, my goal is to end abortion in Mississippi.
I continue to believe this is the right time to stand for our beliefs — our faith, our families, and our nation. To strengthen our resolve, I have asked that we take a bold step for God and country. I have called on Senator Michael Watson to introduce legislation that would change the wording on the Great Seal of the State of Mississippi to reflect our nation's motto. With your help, the seal of the State of Mississippi will, from this session forward, reflect the simple yet profound words 'In God We Trust'.
As our fourth guiding principle, this administration has pledged to make certain every tax dollar is put to a proper and legal use. Since the budget reforms of the mid 1990s, many of us have supported a performance-based budgeting system that allocates resources based on results. I applaud appropriations chairmen Buck Clarke and Herb Frierson for taking steps to move our state toward a more accountable budget model.
Change in this arena is not easy, and I thank you for your leadership. Let this be the year we show the taxpayers our commitment to performance-based budgeting that rewards success and reduces wasteful spending.
In my first executive budget, I called on the Legislature to reinstate the 2 percent set aside, appropriating only 98 percent of available revenue. I applaud you for heeding that call. Your discipline has helped put more than $109 million in the rainy day fund. However, we can do better. As revenue collections increase, we must take this opportunity to refill the rainy day fund to prepare for the future.
If we leave the balance of our state savings account untouched, and again adhere to the 98 percent rule, we can bring the rainy day fund to nearly half of its statutory limit. As lieutenant governor, I worked hard in 2008 to fill the rainy day fund and was criticized by some at the time for doing so. That decision to save when we could proved crucial when we were hit with the great recession. Although we were forced to cut budgets, those savings kept us from cutting as deeply as we would otherwise have been forced to do. Let us take that prudent position once more and fill the Rainy Day Fund for the difficult days that could be ahead.
I need not emphasize the importance of reducing our dependence on one time revenue for recurring expenses. I commend the speaker and lieutenant governor and their leadership teams for working with me to stop this practice, and I am confident we can end it this year. As I have shown in my executive budget recommendation, we can adequately fund government and have no-one time funding for ongoing expenditures. The taxpayers can be confident in your leadership towards this goal.
This year, I have asked that we add a fifth objective to our vision for this state. We must build a future where every Mississippian will be safe in his or her person and property.
The foremost duty of government is to ensure the public's safety. Seven months ago, you assembled a committee of stakeholders and governmental leadership who — with the help of the Pew research team — produced a results-driven report on corrections and criminal justice. The task force issued a comprehensive set of policy recommendations that I believe will be instrumental to reforming our criminal justice system. That task force's bipartisan effort shows what results can be accomplished when we are not only tough but also smart on crime.
As a former deputy sheriff and as a state auditor, I have helped put many criminals behind bars and had no regrets about doing so when necessary. Our family has experienced a violent crime that resulted in the loss of a loved one. I have attended funerals and memorials of slain officers and witnessed firsthand the pain of those mothers and wives. I have no sympathy for violent or career criminals, and I believe that any modification to the correctional system should put the victim first.
I plan to expand the call of the Pew report and to ask for the creation of veterans treatment courts to aid our service men and women who have made mistakes and want to get back on track. I believe we owe our veterans this special attention because they, more than most, have earned a second chance from their country.
As you know, I have also long been an advocate of drug courts, and I hope you will follow the guidance in my budget and fully fund this effort. These courts work. They provide a valuable service that helps get Mississippians on the right path again.
To combat pockets of serious crime in our state, I have asked you to fund a violent crime strike force composed of state, local and federal law enforcement officers. These elite forces will respond to a specific high-crime area and hit gangs and drug dealers where they live. Give law enforcement the authority and the resources they need, and they will get the job done.
Your Mississippi Department of Public Safety has done a remarkable job this year. With us tonight in the gallery is a fine example of the selfless bravery of our troopers. Trooper First Class Kervin Stewart was recognized as the 2012 Trooper of the Year. While off duty and travelling through Alabama, Trooper Stewart came upon a fiery crash. Despite the risks to himself, Trooper Stewart pulled the driver from his vehicle, extinguished the fire that was engulfing him, and saved his life. A 20-year veteran of the army, Trooper Stewart is just one example of the dedication of the fine men and women of our highway patrol. Trooper Stewart, thank you for your service and your sacrifice.
The men and women who wear the blue and grey of the Mississippi Highway Patrol remain the best of the best, but they now need your help. The last trooper school added 51 officers to a patrol that remains nearly 150 below its necessary number. This shortage puts not only the motoring public's lives at risk but also those of our troopers. Let me assure you, without more troopers on the road people will die. Let us fund a trooper school this year.
Of all the things that make Mississippi great, perhaps none is more valuable than our ability to persevere and achieve great things together. Mississippians as a whole are without a doubt the most resilient, the most passionate, and the most capable people in this nation.
Time and time again, history proves that when we fix our focus on a goal — be it repairing the damage wrought by natural disasters or launching entire new industries — we are bold enough to do whatever it takes to achieve success. As governor, I am thankful for the opportunity to chart the course forward for our state. Our hard work is already yielding rewards, and we are equipping ourselves with the tools to take full advantage of the next opportunities that will come our way.
I thank all of you for your help and your discernment. Even your opposition makes us better as we consider every new idea under the intensity of your gaze. But in the end, it is the moving forward that keeps us together. It is the challenge of achieving the people's will now and for the future.
Before we leave tonight, I ask you to join me in thanking the men and women of our armed forces, particularly our National Guard, for defending the freedoms that allow us to gather in this place.
God bless each of you; God bless Mississippi; and God bless the United States of America."
Read Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman's Democratic response here.