Austin Chamber of Commerce
Thank you Mark.
I appreciate that warm welcome, it has not only been an honor for Anita and I to serve you, it has been our distinct pleasure to share this vibrant home: the city of Austin.
Anita, the children and I have become quite fond of this city after moving here ten years ago.
It is special, unique, some would say, a rare place.
It combines some interesting elements. Not too many Texas towns can claim more computer chips than cow chips, a thriving live music scene, scenic lakes and hills, and 15 lawyers per square foot?
Actually, my cousin in East Texas is an attorney, and he doesn’t like it when I have a little fun at the legal profession’s expense.
My response to him is, “I deserve an exemption: do you really think there are more jokes about lawyers than politicians?”
I forgot to mention one other thing that makes Austin unique…it is the only place that Lance Armstrong calls home! He makes all Texans proud.
There’s an old saying that there are only two certainties in life, death and taxes. But death doesn’t get worse every time the Legislature meets.
Well, I’m proud to say that taxes didn’t either this time.
But it wasn’t easy. With a tightening economy, a lot of folks were predicting the inevitability of a tax bill, and/or a raid of the Rainy Day Fund.
Some were advocating raising the gas tax even though gas prices were hovering at near-record highs. Some were advocating taxing seniors in nursing homes an extra nineteen hundred a year even though they are the least able to afford it.
And some were even advocating repealing the record small business, consumer and property tax cuts we passed last session despite there being billions more to spend this session.
Needless to say, I took a very different view. What we needed in Austin, Texas this spring was not higher taxes, but clearer priorities.
And I am proud that in the end, legislators of both parties made wise decisions on investments that will pay dividends long into the future. And despite being one of the fastest growing states in the nation, we did it with a four percent annual increase in general revenue spending.
In the past few years, legislators and state leaders have taken decisive action in improving the economic climate in Texas.
Two years ago we passed record tax cuts, including elimination of the franchise tax for our smallest businesses. A few years before that, we enacted sweeping reforms of our tort laws, making Texas a model for the nation in addressing the litigation abuses that strangle job growth.
In 1989, when I was in the Texas House, I helped take the lead in reforming a workers compensation system that had gotten completely out of whack. Those reforms allowed businesses to make substantial savings.
We continued the trend toward greater economic development this session, particularly by focusing on workforce development.
And I am hopeful, once I have lunch with AMD President Hector Ruiz, that I can prevail upon him to expand in Texas…(but as an Aggie governor, just don’t ask me to pick sides as both Austin and College Station make a pitch for their new operations.)
As business leaders in Central Texas, you are keenly aware that one of the most important long-term investments we can make in this economy is in the area of education.
After assembling a task force of high-tech leaders two years ago, the message from private industry leaders was loud and clear: Texas is facing a tightening skilled labor market.
We made some good strides in improving the future workforce.
We created a public/private fund to increase the number of engineering and computer science degrees conferred by our universities each year.
We created a TEXAS Grant Two Scholarship Program to enable more Texans to attend a two-year college and get a marketable skill that will make them qualified for jobs in the new economy.
And probably the signature accomplishment of the last session was the tripling of the TEXAS Grant Program- that new scholarship program for Texans of limited financial means.
65,000 additional Texans will be able to pursue their dreams of a college education at UT, at ACC, and at numerous colleges around the state because of expansion of the TEXAS Grant Program.
We wanted high school graduates to get a clear message: “we don’t want your future to be limited because your finances are limited.”
We also know that half the battle is preparing students in the years before college. We spend $100 million on remedial math in our colleges and universities every year.
This session, we decided to do for math what we have done in recent years for reading.
The Math Initiative that I signed into law provides extra help to struggling students in the middle school years. If a child is failing math in eighth grade, how will he or she ever pass algebra, geometry, and then calculus?
Those of you in the high-tech community know all too well the importance of math skills in the Texas workforce.
And we all know that when a child drops out, they don’t just drop out of school, they drop out on their future.
We also continued down the track of raising standards, making the college-prep curriculum – also known as the recommended program – the standard curriculum for most high school students.
I set my sights on another important issue this session…traffic.
You need only spend a nice afternoon just down the road in that parking lot known as I-35 to know we need to do more in the area of transportation infrastructure.
We saw great progress toward that end this session because there was a seismic shift in the culture. The discussion was no longer just about how much we should appropriate – though I am happy to report we increased state and federal investments on our highways by more than a billion dollars – it was about how we go about funding highways, and introducing a little innovation.
We passed a conservative bonding program that directs us, in part, away from the status quo pay-as-you-go system that can no longer support our growing needs.
If voters agree to amend the constitution to allow for the bonding of roads and highways by passing Propositions 2 and 15 – as I hope you will – I believe we will see a big difference in our infrastructure system over the long-term.
We also know that toll roads can make a difference when it comes to relieving congestion. Central Texas is taking the lead with four toll projects that will be built in the coming years, including State Highway One-thirty that will help redirect traffic from Interstate 35.
We not only made it easier for more toll roads to be built, we also made it easier for regional toll authorities to be created and determine which local transportation solutions are best for their area.
Addressing our infrastructure needs is vital to economic development. Michael Dell told me that they expanded in Tennessee instead of Texas because of concerns over the tightening workforce, and because of concerns over congestion.
If your product is stuck on I-35, you’re losing money. But it is about even more than profit or convenience- it’s about knowing that your loved ones will return home safely after traveling on our highways.
Recognizing that Texas could stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in highways funds, and that our citizens care deeply about the quality of the air they breathe and the water they drink, we also made great strides this session toward a cleaner environment.
Senate Bill 5 provides incentives for Texans to drive cleaner cars through a new rebate program. It, along with the TNRCC’s clean air plans mean Houston, for example, will reduce its pollution by 75 percent over the next six years.
It asks us all to do our part…private citizens and industry alike…to reduce emissions. If we do, we can look forward to a standard of living that is not compromised when it comes to a healthy environment.
And I want to finish by discussing one other very important issue. This was the best session in memory for health care in Texas.
We passed and I signed into law a landmark Medicaid simplification bill, making the process easier for countless Texas families and saving the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
In addition, we increased Medicaid funding by $4 billion dollars, providing a record $25 billion for the health care needs of our poorest Texans.
We also increased funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program by $936 million - a wise investment by any standard…In less than two years, that program has nearly exceeded its goal of providing health insurance to 428,000 Texas children.
I believe these are sound investments in our future. If our children are receiving routine and preventative care through a doctor, as well as needed immunizations, they will not cost taxpayers more over the long-term.
In addressing these issues, we are recognizing as a state that having healthy dependents – whether elderly or young – has a direct impact on the productivity of your employees.
An employee that regularly misses work to take care of a sick relative can be a liability to your business. Better health care is part of a better workforce.
Legislators also adopted the telemedicine pilot program that I advocated for in my ‘State of the State’ address. Through telemedicine, citizens in the underserved border region will have access to specialists hundreds of miles away.
We made major investments in biotechnology, providing $18 million in funding for a biotech program at UT Southwestern, additional funding for biotech research at the UT Health Sciences Center and M.D. Anderson, and we also began to lay the groundwork for a Biotech Park in Houston.
After passing a record teacher pay raise in 1999, we came back and created a new teacher health insurance program so our best and brightest will make a difference where it matters most: in the classroom.
And I will tell you one other commitment I have made: HMO’s and insurance companies who delay payment and drag their feet will find no quarter under my administration.
Two weeks ago the Texas Department of Insurance proposed new rules to crack-down on slow-paying insurance companies and HMO, and today Commissioner Jose Montemayor is announcing fines amounting to over $9 million for bad faith efforts on the part of certain health plans.
I'm committed to fair pay and prompt pay for Texas health care providers and believe we can get the job done without sparking new civil suits or undermining arbitration which could drive up the cost of health insurance for Texas employers.
I want to close by saying how honored I am to be your governor.
In the weeks, months, and years ahead, I look forward to working with you to keep Texas moving forward as a haven for economic development.
As a former small business owner myself, I know the perspective of someone who has not only signed the back side of a pay check, but also the front side.
Those of you who invest in your community, creating jobs and opportunities are the unsung heroes of this state…but your importance does not go unrecognized at the highest levels of government.
I often think about what our service is about, and I always come back to our school children: those little ones with backpack in hand and the whole world in front of them who represent the promise of tomorrow.
Let us make our every today worthy of their tomorrow. Thank you, and God bless you.
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