2003 Utah State of the State Address

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2003 Utah State of the State Address
by Mike Leavitt
January 21, 2003

A year ago, I stood before you on the eve of a milestone in Utah history the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. I conveyed a strategy for turning 17 days of attention into a thousand days of progress.

Those 17 days were pivotal to us as a state and they were a triumph.

Because of world events, the Utah Olympics had to be much more than a world sports festival. And they were.

They became, for this nation particularly, a recovery a healing process of joyful celebration.

The Games were also a response to the enemies of world civility. In the single image of athletes reverently carrying the battered Ground Zero flag, our nation declared its most profound respect for liberty and life and we served unequivocal notice that we would defend them both.

It was simple repudiation, and it was powerful. As the snowboarders defied gravity, America defied terrorism.

A conversation I had with a Russian-born coach illustrates why people from throughout the world gave these games a perfect score.

He told me the volunteer driving the van to his event was the president of a Utah company. Then, back at the athlete's village, a volunteer cleaning his room, who in real life is a computer engineer, helped him connect his laptop to the Internet.

With his deep Russian accent, he said, "The president of a company drives me to an event. My room is cleaned by a computer engineer. What a country!"

What a country indeed! And what a state! Our state was lifted to international prominence on the shoulders of 35,000 volunteers. We are forever an "Olympic City," and we will never be the same.

Tonight I salute the volunteers of Team 2002, whose spirit personified this state, reassured our nation, and befriended the world.

The Olympics also marked the beginning of our thousand day economic plan. They remain a lasting legacy and a recurring opportunity. But we are now at Day 352 another time, a different place economically, and a whole new set of challenges.

The glow of the Games in a way masked the debilitating effect that the struggling national economy was having on our people. In the past year, many Utahns lost their jobs. Others have seen their income or retirement savings erode as the stock market fell. The historic drop in state revenues that followed has caused disruption and unmet expectations. Add to that fire, drought, return of the Mormon crickets and war...it's been quite a year.

But to keep last year in perspective it helps to remember how much progress we have made the past ten years.

  1. Yes, unemployment is higher than we would like it to be right now, but even considering that, in the last decade we have a quarter million new jobs and wages growing faster than inflation. Household income has climbed from 20th in the nation to 10th: ten places in ten years.
  2. Our air and water are cleaner. Our communities are safer. Crime rates have fallen and still no high-level nuclear waste.
  3. Our transportation system is vastly improved. Energy and water systems are more reliable.
  4. Utahns remain among the healthiest people in the world.
  5. There are fewer than half as many families on welfare, even in difficult economic times. One hundred and thirty-five thousand more families own homes. Put another way, 25 percent of the families in Utah bought their first home in the last 10 years.
  6. Nearly every list of emerging technology markets now includes Utah.
  7. Our reputation in the world was enhanced by the Olympics, which gave us a new internal confidence we've never had before. And with good reason.

Do we have challenges? Yes we do. But, we have toughed out these rough patches before, and we are doing it again.

It's important to note, the biggest factor in Utah's economic recovery is the national economy. As that unfolds, we need to carefully manage the state's financial situation. States have had their bond rating lowered this year, and more will, but Utah isn't going to be one of them. We also need to stay focused on the long term. And here's the key to long term:

In the economic race of this century, the society with the best-educated people wins. Period. End of conversation.

Two weeks ago, the State School Board announced that they plan to adopt a competency standard for high school graduation in Utah. The phrase competency standard is new to most people, but I want to bluntly say: this is a big deal.

If you're a student, this is going to affect your life. If you're a parent with a child in school, you need to know about this. If you're an employer who may hire a Utah student, you will want to know the term "competency standard."

This isn't a nibble around the edges program the State School Board is proposing; it's a transformation, and I support it.

A friend of mine made an observation that illustrates why this is such a landmark. He pointed out to me that in life you get what you value. He said, "If my child misses first period at school, within an hour I get a call. But it's six weeks before we find out that he failed a test." Why? Because funding for the school is based on attendance and it's no surprise that we get 95% attendance because that is what we value.

So what's the message there? Attendance is mandatory. Learning is optional. And that's the wrong message.

The standard our schools use now is called the Carnegie credit system a system developed nearly 100 years ago. The whole system is based on the measurement of time. It organizes schools like a factory.

Under the Carnegie credit system, when a student has spent roughly 120 hours studying a subject, our schools issue a credit, and we move them to the next place in the assembly line. When a student has 24 Carnegie credits, they can trade that for a high school diploma.

Some would say, yes, but the student has to pass the class to get the credit; but what's the standard of competence to receive the credit? It's a D-. That is no standard. That's a disservice.

Time is everything in our school system. We define a school year as 990 hours. Schools get funded based on the number of students that spend the time.

We're so accustomed to the clock that we don't see it as a problem, but what parent isn't bothered that text books are turned in days before the end of the school year?

Students may not be engaged in learning activities, but under this system if the school is open the student gets the credit and the school gets the money.

To parents, it feels like misplaced priorities. To high school seniors, it's a free ride. If they pass their classes with a D- or better in the first three years, they have nearly all the credits they need to graduate, and they waste their senior year.

They take a light load and do what my son calls "chill." It has become a right of passage, almost an entitlement; and our current system doesn't just allow it; it enables it.

This system doesn't just need tinkering; we need a different system, because it's organized around the wrong value.

Ten years ago, a dozen European nations committed to transform themselves by adopting a uniform currency. Where once you had the Franc, the German Mark, the Italian Lira, you now have one unified currency: the Euro.

It began with a well-framed idea and progressed to a vision slowly refined and implemented. It was controversial and in many ways disruptive, but it has changed Europe in a historic way.

For our schools, changing to a competency-measured system is just as significant as changing the monetary system in Europe. It will transform the schools, because it changes the value system.

I propose that the State Board of Education be given authority to develop and test a funding mechanism called the Weighted Competency Unit, which will provide a means of financing schools under this alternative system. The State School Board has said they can be ready to act by fall of this year.

I invite you to join with me this summer in organizing a summit meeting where leaders of every school district and educational governing body can join with parents and academics to discuss and learn together how to implement this vision.

I salute the members of the State School Board. It's time for bold leadership, and this is bold.

Eight months ago, I met with the leaders of 23 industry groups in Utah. I asked them, under the chairmanship of Fraser Bullock, to take an independent look at our current direction in education from an employer's point of view.

In addition to expressing their support of a competency measured system, their report praised what Utah educators accomplish with limited resources. But the report carried a sobering warning: Education in Utah has a serious funding crisis. Think about it. Employers in this state independently calling the situation a crisis a crisis.

The thrust of their statement is that we can't expect to prosper economically when our competitors lap us in education investment.

And, that's exactly what is happening. Even after doubling our investment in education during the past decade, we are 50th in per student funding. Dead last and 40% below the national average. It's clear to me that as long as our demographics stay as they are now, we are never going to approach the national average in per pupil spending.

So what is adequate? We need a target. At a minimum, over the next six years, we should aspire to both fund increased enrollment and close one-half of the gap between ourselves and the intermountain states, such as Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado.

We will not resolve our funding crisis all at once, but tonight I would like to propose five ways that will move us in the right direction.

First, no backsliding. It would be unthinkable, given our relative under-investment and the 10,000 new students entering our schools and colleges this year, to appropriate less money than last year.

Some believe tuition tax credits are the solution to paying for increased enrollments. They say if we subject public schools to the forces of the marketplace, competition will improve them.

I believe in the power of markets to improve public education. Tuition tax credits are based on a simple idea, but they create serious risks. I'm prepared to participate in a discussion, but only when we have adequately funded our public schools. Until then, I would create educational choices in a different way.

Charter schools are working. There are waiting lines to get in; the parents are happy; and they are providing incentives for other public schools to improve. We need more of them and they deserve equal financial footing with other public schools. Additionally, the state needs to create a revolving loan fund for non-profit charter schools to help them meet their building needs.

The best of both worlds is a competency-measured charter school. That is exactly what we are creating in our six new high-tech high schools. The first of those is the Academy of Math, Science and Engineering, which opens at Cottonwood High School this fall. Right on schedule.

Second proposal: we need to discontinue the practice of funding road construction with sales tax dollars.

In 1997, to commemorate the state's 100th year, we created the Centennial Highway Fund consisting of 41 highway projects. Every project is important and needs to be completed.

The 2003 legislature faces vastly different circumstances. The 1997 legislature was awash in new revenue, and faced declining welfare rolls, flat school enrollments, and falling health care prices. By contrast, this legislature faces the fifth year of drought, 65,000 unemployed families, the leading edge of a school enrollment boom, skyrocketing health care costs, and the sharpest drop in revenue since World War II.

This is not 1997, and we cannot approach our highway building as if it were. The excess funds we were spending then no longer exist.

We have limited options. We can slow down road construction and complete projects as we have the money to do so. That was my budget proposal. Or, if you are determined to move ahead on the current construction schedule, new revenues will have to be found because it would be wrongheaded to support cuts to education, release prisoners, and reduce law enforcement while we continue spending sales tax dollars on roads.

Third proposal: We are in a serious drought. Our current method of subsidizing water projects with sales tax is neither adequate, nor reliable, nor conservation-minded. And it puts water development in direct competition with funds for college students, healthcare for the poor, abused children, and others in need.

Tonight, I call upon the water community in our state to seize this moment to create a permanent, adequate, reliable, and conservation-oriented means to assure our water future. This not only benefits water users, it returns general fund dollars to education.

Fourth proposal: If we collected taxes that are now owed but not collected on sales made via Internet, catalogue or telephone, it would level the retail playing field and help us meet our public education aspirations. You have legislation before you that will radically simplify and bring fairness to the sales tax system.

And finally, the fifth proposal: We need to hold the line on administrative costs in government by stepping up our efforts to move government services online. This is hard work requiring flexibility and innovation. Approximately 1.2 million state government services are provided over the Internet each month. That's 1.2 million times people got their service faster without the direct help of a state employee.

But the result of bringing every state government service online 24/7 will be lower costs and better service for Utahns. You can start by allowing consumers to use credit cards without penalty when they use online services.

I have some good news tonight. Putting education first in our budget is good economic policy. That's our strategy, and it works. I'm pleased to announce that tomorrow we will sign a deal resulting in the creation of 500 to 1000 new technology jobs in Utah by prominent national companies over the next three years. Anyone who is interested may go to the State of Utah website for more information about these exciting opportunities.

These jobs are in a health care industry called medical informatics; and these jobs are coming to Utah, because we've trained workers with the specific skills employers need.

Many of the new jobs will be located in rural Utah at our 18 Smart Sites. In just 352 days, Smart Sites have become one of the largest single sources of employment in rural Utah.

The Thousand Day plan also fostered a new biotechnology/human genetics project called GenData. GenData is a non-profit enterprise formed by the state, the University of Utah and the Huntsman Cancer Foundation. It combines the unique genealogical information found in Utah with genetic and medical data contributed by Utah families into a database that will create a scientific treasure, used to cure and treat diseases like diabetes and cancer that touch every family. It will attract venture capital and pharmaceutical and medical research organizations from all over the world.

In order to assure the integrity of the information Utah families give voluntarily, I ask that you build into law an impenetrable wall of privacy protection.

Though still in the early development stage, this is one to watch. GenData will be the springboard for thousands of high-paying jobs in the next decade and the means by which Utah secures a reputation as a world leader in biotechnology.

There are two economic trends that worry me. Bankruptcies in our state are getting to the point that the only explanation is a plague of bad judgment and over consumption. It's the kind of weakness that will destroy reputations, families, communities and economic prosperity. Our schools have a role, but most of all we have a duty as responsible adults to live in ways that allow us to meet our obligations and teach our children to do the same.

I am also concerned that tuition increases are beginning to price the average family in Utah out of higher education. One of our greatest strengths is a highly educated work force, another reason to put education first.

And now I'd like to spend a moment talking about homeland security. I want to assure you, we are doing all that is humanly reasonable to protect your health and safety.

We remember not just what we lost on Sept. 11, but what we found, and terrorists will never have the final say. I'd like to tell you about a special group of Utahns who took that message to Afghanistan and hand-delivered it to Al Qaeda.

Two months after the attack on America, Bravo Company of the 19th Special Forces Group in Springville was quietly activated and sent to Afghanistan. It was commanded by Major Randy Watt, who is with us tonight, along with Sergeants Scott Hansen, Allen Smithee, and Mark Evans.

They are elite forces Green Berets specializing in counter-terrorism, guerilla warfare, infiltration and strikes behind enemy lines.

In civilian life you know them as your neighbors Bravo Company's ranks include a school teacher, a paramedic, a construction worker, and a corporate safety manager, not to mention West Valley City's director of housing and Ogden's assistant police chief.

Last year, when you heard about America's Special Forces going into caves and compounds in Tora Bora and Wazir Valley to root out Al Qaeda, you may not have known the reports were referring to Utah National Guard soldiers.

They came under fire more than one hundred times from rockets, machine guns, grenades, and artillery. They watched their backs constantly, because the paid loyalists supplementing their ranks regularly fled and left them in the "kill zone."

They faced a new kind of enemy that rigged up everyday electronic devices as remote detonators for land mines and favored children as human shields an enemy motivated by hatred, extreme fundamentalism and the $100,000 bounty Al Qaeda promised for each dead American.

Bravo Company confronted the enemy for seven months and returned home in November to more than 70 combat decorations -- including 39 Bronze Stars for their distinguished service and bravery.

That is a staggering amount of heroism for one small unit. We are a proud state and a grateful nation.

Two experiences of this unit particularly stand out. Sergeants Smithee and Evans where among just four Bravo Company sergeants who took on a larger, heavier-equipped enemy force that had set up an ambush. They were surrounded and badly out-numbered. Under heavy fire, at close range, Smithee and Evans systematically, in a lengthy gun battle, worked their way up a hill to take out an enemy machine gun emplacement and mortar pit. Their direct strike against the enemy gave them the high ground and the Al Qaeda forces fled.

The second heroic event began as a "search and locate" foray at a walled Afghan compound and turned into a prolonged battle between Major Watt's detachment and an Al Qaeda cell. It was all-out combat, involving air support and medical evacuations and it continued for five hours. Four soldiers were hit, including a Utah guardsman. Through it all, Watt commanded rescue and battle operations as Hansen risked his life to pull wounded comrades to safety.

They killed and captured the entire Al Qaeda force. One of those injured in that battle was Sergeant Lane Morris also with us tonight.

I wanted to begin repaying our debt of gratitude to these soldiers in a meaningful way by inviting all of Utah to witness a very special event: the awarding of the Bronze Star to the final four members of Bravo Company who have yet to receive it.

These four earned the star with an added citation called the "V device." It signifies valor and is awarded only for directly engaging the enemy in ground combat.

It is my great pleasure as commander-in-chief of the Utah National Guard to award the Bronze Star with the "V device" for valor to Major Randy Watt, Sergeant Scott Hansen, Sergeant Allen Smithee, and Sergeant Mark Evans.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Army's newest recipients of the Bronze Star.

I need to be clear about the future of the Army, Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve, and US Army Reserve. A sobering assessment of the landscape suggests the potential of war in Iraq. You need to know that because of the unique training and capability of the Utah National Guard and Reserve, Utah will likely bear a disproportionate responsibility in that conflict, perhaps as many as 2,300 soldiers and airmen. They need our unfailing support, as employers, Utahns, and Americans.

These four here tonight told me that during their tour of duty not a day went by that they did not think of America and were thankful.

This is the nature of America and the abiding character of Utah the courage and resolve of Bravo Company ... and the spirit and devotion of the Olympic volunteer. Because of it we have no limits on aspiration or achievement.

So while difficulty lies ahead, so does full recovery and renewed prosperity. And we will triumph over our adversity. It can be no other way. Utah is a composite of its people and the state of our state is strong.

Thank you, good night and may God bless our troops, our state and our nation.