OKLAHOMA CITY,OK -- Gov. Brad Henry urged lawmakers on Monday to resist tapping the state's savings account and for the first time endorsed legislation to require insurance companies to cover children with autism.
Henry said he is recommending "precise, surgical cuts" in agency budgets while protecting vital state functions such as education, health care, transportation and public safety.
He also proposed government efficiencies ranging from purchasing reforms to consolidated information technologies.
The Democratic governor, in remarks prepared for the first Legislature led by Republicans in both the House and Senate, said it will take a bipartisan effort to close a budget gap of $600 million.
In urging lawmakers not to dip into the constitutional Rainy Day Fund, Henry quoted Oklahoma favorite son Will Rogers, who was fond of saying "if you don't like Oklahoma's weather, wait five minutes -- it'll change."
"We know to expect the unexpected: today's showers could be tomorrow's tempest, and so we must resist the urge to raid the Rainy Day Fund," he said.
While Oklahoma is doing better economically that most of the rest of the nation, Henry has worried that depressed energy revenues could derail the state's economic progress and cause worse budget problems for state government next year.
Henry is urging lawmakers to find a permanent funding source for the EDGE research endowment to create high-tech jobs to ensure the state prospers in future years and is not so reliant on the energy sector.
In backing autism legislation, Henry said: "Today too many families face the daunting task of raising autistic children with little or no help. That must change."
He said no one would think of denying insurance coverage to a child battling diabetes or cancer.
"Why deny the same coverage to an autistic child? I call on this Legislature to ensure that all insurance companies follow the lead of BlueCross/BlueShield and include autism coverage in their policies so families can get the help they need and deserve."
Legislation to require autism treatment died in the House last year after intense lobbying by the insurance industry. The legislation was generally supported by Democrats.
The 2009 Oklahoma Legislature convened at noon to hear Henry's seventh State of the State speech.
It is a historic session because Republicans picked up three Senate seats last November to snatch the majority in the 48-member chamber for the first time.
The GOP holds a 26-22 edge over Democrats in the Senate and a 61-40 advantage in the House, which went Republican in 2004.
The state's current funding difficulties are linked to projected declines in oil and gas taxes and revenue lost after $2 billion in GOP-sponsored tax cuts.
Henry did not go into details of his budget plan, but state Treasurer Scott Meacham said it proposes $102.5 million in agency cuts, ranging from 1 percent to 7.5 percent, and a reduction in travel of 10 percent.
It makes use of more than $100 million in spillover funds, and taps excess money in an earmarked education account and unspent funds in the budgets of several agencies.
Henry's budget proposes to save $45 million through government efficiencies.
Civil justice reform, expanding access to health care, prison crowding and economic development are among the top issues facing lawmakers.
House Speaker Chris Benge wants Oklahoma to make a major push to develop alternative energy sources. Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee wants a new agency to promote efficiency in government through performance audits.
Other bills likely to spur debate would require voters to show identification at the polls, allow for a Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol grounds, restrict cell telephone text messaging, permit guns to be carried on college campuses and make English the official language in Oklahoma.
Democrats are vowing to support programs to help the middle class. Sen. Charles Laster, D-Shawnee, is the new Senate Democratic leader. Rep. Danny Morgan, D-Prague, returns as the House minority leader.
State of the State Address text - Governor Brad Henry
Members of the House and Senate, Lt. Governor Askins, President Pro Tempore Coffee, Speaker Benge, Honorable Justices of the Supreme Court, distinguished Cabinet and elected officials, honored guests and my fellow Oklahomans and friends:
We gather in this historic chamber as men and women of different backgrounds, different hometowns, and different points of view - yet, we are bonded by a common commitment to serve the great people of Oklahoma.
We shoulder tremendous responsibilities: to build a first-class education system; to cultivate economic opportunity; to ensure affordable, accessible health care; to nurture a society in which families and individuals can live in safety, peace and prosperity.
The journey toward these goals requires a compass to keep us on a steady course. I am grateful for my own compass: my faithful family. Family anchors us and reminds us of what is truly important and why we chose a path of public service.
And so, I am thankful that my wonderful wife is here this afternoon - a remarkable mother, an incredible, equal partner who is my best friend, my greatest inspiration, and the love of my life. Please help me welcome the incomparable First Lady of Oklahoma, Kim Henry.
Difficult Times, Difficult Choices
Today, Americans confront difficult economic times. Each week ushers in news of more businesses failing, more layoffs, and increasingly somber forecasts. Our nation is in the midst of the worst recession of a lifetime, and Oklahomans, like all Americans, are anxious and concerned.
There is deep uncertainty. People want to know that they will be able to afford to retire. They want to know that they'll be able to pay their bills, provide for their children, and keep their homes.
Particularly in these turbulent times, you and I have an awesome responsibility to put aside our differences, especially our partisan differences, and work together to do what is right and best for the people of Oklahoma. We Oklahomans are tough and resilient. We've faced adversity many times, and, by pulling together, we've come through those adversities stronger and more united than before. And we'll do it again.
This year, we face a budget hole of nearly $600 million. As Oklahoma families take a hard look at their own expenses and cut where they can, we must do the same. State agencies must tighten their budgets. Some projects must be put on hold. This fiscal year will be marked by thrift and sacrifice.
In this demanding economic environment, we must make difficult decisions. But, just as the Chinese character for "crisis" also denotes "opportunity," so, too, do the challenges we face present an opportunity to improve government.
Today, I have placed before you a balanced budget that makes precise, surgical cuts while protecting vital state functions such as education, healthcare, transportation and public safety. Through efficiencies and savings that range from purchasing reforms to consolidated information technologies, we can help ensure a government of greater effectiveness and excellence.
We've been through tough times before. When I took office in 2003, Oklahoma faced the worst budget crisis in history - a shortfall of nearly $700 million and a depleted Rainy Day Fund.
We joined forces, working together in bipartisan cooperation, and we confronted the challenge head-on. In a historic agreement, legislative leaders of both parties and I made hard choices. But we protected education and healthcare, and we balanced the budget without raising taxes.
At my urging, in the years since, we have - for the first time in our history - filled the Rainy Day Fund to capacity.
Now, we Oklahomans know a lot about the weather. Our favorite son, Will Rogers, said it best when he noted that if you don't like Oklahoma's weather, wait five minutes - it'll change. We know to expect the unexpected: today's showers could be tomorrow's tempest, and so we must resist the urge to raid the Rainy Day Fund.
We should also remember that the sun will shine again. This session must be about more than simply seeing our state through a troubled today; we must also plan ahead to ensure prosperity and promise for tomorrow.
That prosperity will not occur in a vacuum. It will be the result of painstaking work and innovation. Lack of funding is no excuse for lack of vision, and so this year we must continue building the foundation for a brighter future.
The Competitive EDGE
Three years ago, we launched the EDGE Endowment with the simple but bold goal of transforming Oklahoma into the Research Capital of the Plains. Biotech, aerospace, renewable energies, knowledge-based industries - these are the gateways to a thriving economy in the global age.
Only self-imposed limitations on imagination and commitment can hold us back. Thanks to EDGE, our state has a unique tool to nurture research and enterprise that will create good-paying jobs and growth opportunities. But the endowment remains far below the ultimate goal of $1 billion.
Each year that we fail to act puts us at a greater competitive disadvantage. By dedicating future interest earnings from the Rainy Day Fund as well as a portion of future annual state investment earnings, the cutting-EDGE investment of today will become the cutting-EDGE research and jobs of tomorrow. I urge you to join me in establishing a permanent funding source for this critical endowment.
Energizing Our Future
As we prepare our state for a vibrant future, it is crucial that we also recognize the evolving reality of energy.
Oklahoma energy has a long and glorious tradition. Our world-renowned oil and gas industry is a mainstay of our economy. While we must continue to support the exploration and development of domestic fossil fuels, we must also do more to confront an energy addiction that threatens the very security of our nation.
Nearly 70 percent of the nation's oil supply comes from foreign sources, including countries that are hostile to the United States. Without action, our dependence on foreign fuel will only increase. And that's a dangerous recipe for the future.
Through our state's abundant resources and hard-earned expertise, Oklahoma is uniquely positioned to be at the forefront of a dynamic new age, an era that demands sustainable energy sources and commonsense conservation.
We must lay the foundation now to encourage and nurture the development and use of alternative energies such as wind, geothermal, solar, biofuels and compressed natural gas. From the winds that sweep across our plains to our vast deposits of natural gas, Oklahoma is blessed with riches that can help free our nation from the grip of foreign fuel.
Two years ago, in recognition of the potential of biofuels, we created the Oklahoma Bioenergy Center to capitalize on the innovative research being conducted in our state. Oklahomans are expanding the possibility and viability of cellulosic ethanol, and it is critical that we continue our commitment to this visionary enterprise.
We have established green energy-efficiency standards for public buildings, but that is only the beginning. I challenge all state agencies to lead by example, examining any and all ways in which to conserve, and thus maximize, our resources. State agencies have the ability to reduce energy consumption by 10 percent by 2010 - and, with commitment and ingenuity, they will.
Coaches for Education
Perhaps the most important key to future prosperity is a strong education system. We must protect the gains we have made in the classroom.
Together, we have increased teacher pay, created a world-renowned early childhood education system, strengthened accountability and standards with the ACE initiative, and provided a permanent funding source for Oklahoma's Promise so people of limited means can attend college. We cannot lose ground now.
Too many of our students are failing to graduate from high school. I again propose a "graduation coaches" program that will bring volunteers from our communities into our schools to serve as guides, mentors and champions for students at risk of dropping out.
Oklahoma is brimming with intelligent, caring and capable individuals, eager to make a difference in the lives of our students. I urge you to create a graduation coaches program this year to help give all Oklahoma students a chance to graduate from high school and an opportunity to realize their full potential.
A Healthier Oklahoma
Just as tomorrow's successes are built in today's classrooms, the work of building a healthier Oklahoma - an Oklahoma with a long and vibrant future - must begin in the present moment.
In recent years, we have worked across the aisle to improve the health and healthcare of our people.
We have enacted common-sense restrictions on tobacco use that protect workers, children and others from the dangers of secondhand smoke. We have worked with tribal partners and our state's universities to begin building world-class cancer and diabetes research and treatment centers.
In schools across Oklahoma, we have doubled physical education requirements and restricted the sale of drinks and snack foods with little or no nutritional value. Programs like the Strong and Healthy Oklahoma Initiative are giving Oklahomans the information they need to lead healthier lifestyles.
Still, too many Oklahomans lack access to adequate medical care. Nearly 20 percent of all Oklahomans and more than 18 percent of our children are uninsured. Without decisive action this year, the world economic situation will only exacerbate this problem.
We took action in 2004, and our nationally-acclaimed Insure Oklahoma program has since demonstrated great promise. More than 3,600 employers are partnering with the state and private insurers to provide coverage to nearly 11,000 employees.
But that is only a start. Insure Oklahoma can ultimately provide health coverage - and financial stability and peace of mind - to tens of thousands more Oklahomans
We are making great headway. In Tulsa, for example, we are increasing participants through targeted enrollment at the point of service. We should expand this pilot program, and, the good news is, funding is already in place.
We can also attract many more participants by allowing additional lower-cost choices, such as high-deductible and tailored-benefit plans. I urge you to join me in continuing to build upon this tremendous program so every eligible Oklahoman can eventually receive affordable health insurance.
Just as we work to increase the number of insured Oklahomans, we must also make certain that coverage is meaningful and provides services that Oklahomans need.
I commend House leaders for their efforts to increase the number of autism service providers in Oklahoma. Too many of our families face the daunting task of raising autistic children with little or no help.
That must change.
None of us would think of denying health coverage to a child suffering from diabetes or battling against cancer. Why deny that same coverage to an autistic child? I call on this Legislature to ensure that all insurance companies follow the lead of Blue Cross/Blue Shield and include autism coverage in their policies so families can get the help they need and deserve.
Methamphetamine addiction also threatens our state's health. Meth has destroyed lives and families across Oklahoma, and it still preys on our children and loved ones. In 2005, we passed landmark legislation that put pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient of meth, behind the counter. It virtually wiped out toxic and explosive meth labs in our state. But addiction remains, and so does the supply of imported meth.
We must not relent in the battle against this destructive force. I am so proud of my wife, Kim, for her work co-chairing the Crystal Darkness Initiative that fights meth addiction in Oklahoma - first with a compelling and informative documentary, and now with a statewide public education and treatment campaign. We cannot lose the momentum created by Crystal Darkness. I urge you to join Kim and me in making sure that substance-abuse treatment is available to help free Oklahomans trapped in the terror of addiction.
No freedom is more precious than the right to vote. Government of the people and for the people requires participation by the people. Record voter turnouts across the nation last November were cause for celebration, but long lines and discouraging waits were cause for concern.
Early in-person voting has been hugely successful in Oklahoma and other states. I call on you to help boost voter participation by making it easier and more convenient for our citizens to vote. Let's extend early voting in our state by four days, allowing voters to cast their votes for a full week prior to Election Day.
Last week, parts of Oklahoma were again devastated by ice storms and winter weather. Our hearts and prayers go out to all of those impacted by the storms. We all want to do more to help, and we can. We need to act now to replenish the state emergency fund so our communities and counties can get the help they need.
The Choices We Make
This is a historic year in Oklahoma politics. I congratulate Speaker Benge, President Pro Tem Coffee, and Democratic leaders Morgan and Laster on their respective elections to leadership. I've had the pleasure of working with each of you in the past, and I look forward to doing so again this session.
Now, more than ever, it is time for all of us in this chamber to put aside partisan differences and petty squabbles. The stakes are too high, the consequences too great, to surrender to the divisiveness of partisan games.
Politics stirs strong emotions, but I would implore you to shrug off the perceived slights that sometimes tarnish the business of this building. Mahatma Gandhi noted that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. The challenges of 2009 and beyond will require clear vision.
As we move toward the close of the first decade of the 21st century, we must ask ourselves what we hope to accomplish. Each day, we will make choices that determine the state our children will inherit.
We can push polarizing legislation that grabs the attention of bloggers and talk radio, or we can pursue legislation that propels Oklahoma firmly into the 21st century.
We can cater to party lines and special interests, or we can work, together, in the best interests of the people and the state we love.
Choose cooperation. Choose bipartisanship and unity. Choose the right course for the people of Oklahoma.
This legislative session, we will make difficult decisions. But we can take comfort in the knowledge, borne of experience, that trying times are temporary, but the fruits of cooperation and consensus are everlasting. If we work together, Oklahoma will reach new heights.
Let us choose, in this moment, to make our mark upon Oklahoma's future.
God bless you, and God bless Oklahoma.