February 10, 2000
(Mr. Speaker, Lieutenant Governor Fogarty, Majority Leader Kelly, Members of the General Assembly; Members of the Judiciary; Distinguished guests.)
I don't have to tell you that the budget is our single most important challenge. The investments we make today set the course for our future.
When I took office five years ago, it was my top priority to get our fiscal house in order. At that time, our economy was in a decline. We had budget deficits, high taxes and high debt.
We weren't investing adequately in our economy or our infrastructure.
Our bridges, roads and state buildings were falling apart. Together we developed a long-term investment strategy to strengthen our economy and make our state more competitive. Our efforts are paying great dividends. Without question, we have brought long-term financial stability to our state.
Unemployment is below 4 percent. That means more and more Rhode Islanders are working. That's enabling our residents to achieve the American dream.
Our state's finances are stronger because our debt is declining. We are paying off DEPCO debt at record speeds.
Just look at the chart, and you'll see the line going down. In a matter of months, we'll be putting DEPCO out of business. That's one "out of business" sign we'll all look forward to seeing.
Back in 1995, the Department of Transportation was in the red for 30 million dollars. We've changed that.
Additionally, we've doubled the road program without increasing the level of debt. By dedicating more of the gas tax to transportation, we've invested more than 100 million dollars over the past four years out of current revenue for transportation services.
If we stay the course over the next two years, we will have achieved my goal to move all of the gas tax where it belongs---in funding transportation.
Our bond rating is up. No one thought we'd be able to hold our bond rating steady four years ago. Some thought it would take a miracle to accomplish this goal. But we did that and more.
Today Fitch and Moody's are giving us high marks. That's testimony to the strong financial plan we've created.
We are also holding the line on employment in state government.
This afternoon I am pleased to report that the State of the Budget is healthy. Very healthy. Through exercising sound fiscal judgment, we have come a long way.
We have to remember that debt avoidance is just as important as debt reduction.
That's why we instituted an aggressive pay-as-you-go asset protection plan that has greatly reduced our reliance on debt for repairs to state-owned property.
With this budget, we will have put more than 90 million dollars out of current revenue into capital projects. That has enabled us to invest in so many facilities---from our State House to our parks, from our fishing piers to our beaches.
Last week I highlighted my vision for Rhode Island for the year to come. A vision that focuses upon education, the economy, health care and the environment. A vision that will enable us to build upon the momentum we've gained in making Rhode Island a better place in which to live and work.
Our children are our future. We know that the brain develops the most from birth to age 6. That's why we have placed a strong emphasis on early childhood programs. That's why we're providing quality, affordable child care to working families. We're investing millions more in child care and we've created thousands of new child care slots for children.
Since 1998, the number of children in state child care programs has increased 55 percent. 55 percent. That's an accomplishment we can all be very proud of. This year I am earmarking 1 point 8 million dollars to create a comprehensive child care service network for at-risk children. Through this network, providers will monitor children's health, nutrition, and their overall well-being.
Our children acquire the knowledge they need to make their dreams a reality in our public schools. That's why we have dramatically enhanced the face of education in Rhode Island. Since I took office, we have invested over 150 million dollars in additional school funding. Just look at the graph, and you'll see the trend.
Education spending continues to be on the rise. I intend to keep it that way. This afternoon I am pleased to announce that I am proposing to increase local education aid by 34 point 9 million dollars. We have plans to do even more. My administration is also seeking additional federal Medicaid funding which could bring over 8 million dollars to our school districts.
As additional funds become available in May, I will seek to increase funding for elementary and secondary education.
While we're investing more in our schools, we have to spur the growth of programs that will enable children to enter school ready to learn.
That's why I am continuing my push for full-day kindergarten. Three hours a day simply isn't enough time for children to receive the tools they need to succeed in school. Let's better prepare our children for the challenges before them by making full-day kindergarten more readily available.
Based on their level of education aid, I am proposing that school districts receive incentive grants up to 1,500 dollars for each student enrolled in full-day kindergarten. We have to help the cities and towns institute or expand full-day kindergarten. This proposal will help get the job done.
By investing in professional development in reading, we are working together to achieve my goal to have all students proficient in reading by the fourth grade. As we improve our children's reading skills, we also must help our students excel in math. That's why I am recommending 180 thousand dollars to help our math teachers with instruction.
Over the years, we have instituted accountability in our public schools. We must take education reform to the next level and intervene where it's needed. That's why I am recommending one million dollars for the Department of Education to ensure that schools have capable leadership, a challenging curriculum and ongoing professional development.
Once our students graduate from high school, we want them to look towards our state's colleges and university to further their studies.
To ensure that our institutions of higher education meet the challenges of the 21st century, I am proposing to increase funding by more than 10 million dollars.
We've also dedicated an additional 2 point 3 million dollars in debt service for higher education at the Department of Administration. All told, this means a 7.5 percent increase for higher education.
In addition, I am recommending 6 point 5 million dollars to improve buildings at our colleges and university.
I am also calling for a 63 million dollar bond for the November ballot to renovate and build dorms at URI and Rhode Island College. These monies will also pave the way for a new Community College Campus in Newport.
We must continue to move our state forward by investing in the industries of tomorrow.
Through our Slater Centers, we are pushing new frontiers in the fields of Biotechnology and Ocean Technology. I am proposing to allocate 3 million dollars to ensure the success of our existing Centers and create four new Centers.
When we talk about investing in the future of Rhode Island, there is no greater investment than the arts. The arts spark our economy; fuel our tourism industry and enhance our quality of life. The arts give us Tony-Award winning theater, beautiful museums, world-class actors, sculptors and painters. For every dollar we invest in the arts, the returns are enormous.
Let's increase the Arts Council funding by 400 thousand dollars and help bring the arts to every corner of our state. Let's make sure that we have a thriving cultural community throughout the 21st century.
We are also making our state government more customer friendly. That's why I am proposing 3.5 million dollars for a technology fund to enhance information systems. We need to enter the age of E-government. That will enable us to deliver services to individuals more effectively and efficiently.
We are also committed to relieving the tax burden on Rhode Islanders. By cutting the income tax, we are putting more money in the pockets of our residents. We have cut the income tax for three straight years, and we will do it again next year.
Over the course of four years including this budget, taxpayers will have saved approximately 120 million dollars on their income taxes.
We've also put more money back in the pockets of Rhode Islanders through the reduction in the car tax.
We have financed the second round of the motor vehicle excise tax phase out. My budget includes 48 million dollars to continue funding current car tax exemptions. However, my budget does not include 16.2 million dollars to fund the next level. Since the onset of this program, we have always said that we would assess the affordability of expanding it each year.
Based on current resources and the needs of our state, there's simply not enough money to increase the car tax exemption this year, especially when you consider our investments in education and health care.
We want our residents to lead healthy fulfilling lives.
Over the past five years, we have seen a lot of success from our Ritecare program. To ensure the well-being of our children, we're providing comprehensive health care to youth up to age 19.
Let's further protect our children's health by providing two point 6 million dollars for Project Reach to support community-based mental health services for children.
With federal dollars no longer available, it's imperative that the state continue providing these services to the children who benefit from them.
We've made great strides in helping DCYF meet its mission.
Today the Department has a new, centrally located home, and a state-of-the-art computer system. Each year we have also increased programs and services for DCYF in our state's budget.
Back in 1998, I issued an Executive Order to establish a Commission designed to study the placement of children in foster and adoptive care.
The budget I am submitting today supports two of the Commission's recommendations----- creating an Office of Community Relations at the Department and enhancing our capacity to recruit foster and adoptive families. That's why I'm proposing 300 thousand dollars to support these initiatives.
As we're providing loving homes for our children, we're doing all that we can to enable our elders to maintain their independence. We are increasing wages for home health and community care workers for the second year in a row.
Additionally, I am recommending that we expand the Medicaid program to 100 percent of the poverty level. That will allow more seniors to have services like prescription drugs and adult day care.
Residents of all ages enjoy spending an afternoon walking, jogging or biking on our bikepaths.
It's my goal to become the first state in the Northeast to complete its segment of the East Coast Greenway which is designed to connect cities from Maine to Florida. We are moving miles ahead in our efforts to create more bikepaths in our state.
Just think. Four years from now, we'll have 50 miles of bikepaths in our communities.
As we are creating more trails for men, women and children to explore, we are also protecting open space.
Since 1995, we have preserved 4 thousand acres. Let's make that 35 thousand acres by 2010. We can do that by approving the 50 million dollar bond referendum I have proposed for November.
I urge you to say yes to my efforts to keep Rhode Island green.
My commitment to the environment doesn't end there. I am recommending 30 million dollars for the first phase of the combined sewer overflow project. That will greatly improve the water quality of Narragansett Bay.
I am also proposing 12 million dollars for local communities, businesses and nonprofit organizations to address water quality issues including septic tanks, storm water treatment and pollution abatement.
In order to effectively safeguard our environment, we need a strong DEM. That's why we need to invest more resources in the Department.
Let's increase the staffing level and create 14 additional positions.
I am also continuing to support this agency's development of a new permit processing and tracking system. That's why I am proposing over one million dollars for this purpose.
That means residents will be able to track their permit applications online. That means we'll be making it easier and quicker for Rhode Islanders to do business with this Department.
Rhode Islanders deserve a state government that's responsive to their needswhether they're 5 or 65.
When I look at the budget, I see children born today with proper health care and child care.
I see their brothers and sisters expanding their horizons in our public schools. I see economic opportunity for their parents. I see services to keep their grandparents independent.
I can see three generations taking a drive to the beach, walking through green fields, or spending a day at our parks.
This budget will bring this vision alive.