Governor Brad Henry outlines budget, agenda during ' State of the State' speech

Monday, February 7th 2005, 5:56 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Gov. Brad Henry challenged a politically divided Oklahoma Legislature Monday to unite behind common goals of excellence in education, better health care and tax fairness.

"My administration has demonstrated that we do more than preach bipartisanship. We practice it. And I urge all of you gathered here today to make a similar pledge to that spirit of unity," Henry told a joint session of the House and Senate.

"The election is over, and with it we must set aside the divisiveness and polarization that fuel campaigns but foil good government," the Democratic governor said in his third State of the State address.

Henry was interrupted 64 times by applause in his 43-minute speech, including cheers from college students when he called for passage of a $500 million bond issue for higher education "and do it quickly while interests rates are low."

The 50th Oklahoma Legislature, which convened Monday for a four-month run, includes the first Republican House since the 1921-22 session. Thanks to term limits, the House also includes 39 freshmen, the largest class of first-year lawmakers in four decades. The Senate remains Democratic by a 26-22 margin, with 15 freshmen.

Henry said while Republicans had success in the November election, the voters also put their stamp of approval on his lottery and gaming proposals that will provide new funding for education and health care.

He said lawmakers must honor their commitment to raising teacher salaries to the regional average.

"Oklahomans went to the polls and championed our schools. Now Oklahoma leaders must champion our teachers," he said.

Henry had previously outlined a program of school accountability and increased funding.

"It is within our reach to make Oklahoma schools the best in the nation, and now is the time to build on our momentum," he said.

He also called for a prescription drug importation plan, workers' compensation reform, additional lawsuit reform, strengthening an anti-meth meth law Henry said is the envy of other states and nursing home reform.

Henry said it was unconscionable that some Oklahomans had to choose between buying food and medicine because of skyrocketing drug prices.

"Some people would have you believe we don't have a say in the matter," he said. "I disagree. We must challenge the system, even if it means taking on the federal government and the big pharmaceutical companies. The status quo is simply unacceptable."

He thanked newly installed House Speaker Todd Hiett, R-Kellyville, for agreeing in concept to a $263 million program of tax cuts and investment in high-tech research. He said it was a commonsense program that would bring fairness to the tax code through rebates, income tax cuts for retirees and other measures.

Hiett said he liked Henry's agenda.

"There's nothing I can't agree with," the GOP speaker said, adding Henry was taking the state in "a more conservative direction."

On higher education bonds, Hiett said he would work to get the quick approval Henry wants, but still has concerns about how the bonds would be funded.

In his 71/2-page speech, Henry took note of the approaching 10th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 Oklahomans and injured hundreds on April 19, 1995.

He said Oklahomans' response to the tragedy became known as "the Oklahoma Standard" which means "resilience in the face of adversity" and "strength and compassion that will not be defeated."

"Most of all, it means coming together as a family, the family that is Oklahoma," he said.

Henry said that unity has allowed his administration to make big strides the past two years in education, job creation, health care and public safety.

"As stewards of state government, we have a moral responsibility to continue working together and moving our state forward," he said.

Henry introduced members of his family, including first Lady Kim Henry, whom he called his closest education adviser, and their three children -- Leah, Laynie and Baylee.

The governor also paid homage to members of the Oklahoma Army and Air National Guard and called for passage of his plan to provide a tax exemption for military pension income and a $250,000 life insurance policy for every guardsman.

He singled out Capt. Scott Houck, a 14-year veteran of the Guard, who recently returned home after serving a yearlong tour of duty in Afghanistan, receiving a Bronze Star.

"Scott Houck is typical of how our Army and Air National Guard have made an extraordinary commitment for our state and nation. And so it is time we made an extraordinary commitment to our Guard and their families," Henry said.

Henry said he faced almost a $700 million budget deficit when he became governor two years ago, but it was solved by bipartisan cooperation.

"The pundits and political observers say Americans have never been more divided than we are today," he said. "They speak in terms of what supposedly separates us -- red state and blue state, rich or poor, black or white -- and on it goes.

"But I don't believe we are defined by our differences, and I don't think most Oklahomans do, either. Simply put, we are more alike than we are different."

He said lawmakers should remember "the legacy of the Oklahoma family" as they embark on a historic session.

"We cannot and will not lose the momentum we have created," Henry said. "So much that we have accomplished to date -- in education and job growth, health care and public safety -- is meaningless if we close our eyes to the vision that can unite us."