My fellow Alabamians -
Tonight, we find ourselves at a crossroads in our state's history. Alabama faces the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression and now must choose which road to take – one that repeats the failures of our past or one that leads to a better future.
Abraham Lincoln once said, "I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts." In that spirit, I am going to give you something you've never gotten out of Montgomery before – the whole truth.
On March 4, I presented to you a report on the State of our State. Since that time, I have found that our financial difficulties are even greater than we originally thought. For too many years, our state government has been living on borrowed time and borrowed money…robbing Peter to pay Paul.
In just the past four years, the state has doubled the amount of money it has borrowed. Even more troubling, our debt payments were scheduled to balloon by almost $110 million this year. On top of that, our Medicaid payments are up by $100 million, and it will take at least another $100 million for prisons. One-time sources of revenue were spent by prior administrations, but never replaced. Even our children's rainy day fund was depleted. Combine all that with the current sluggish economy, and you understand how we arrived at this point.
I have assembled what I consider to be the best cabinet in Alabama history and charged them with cutting wasteful spending. In just four months, we have already saved the taxpayers over $230 million dollars. And that process is not over, it is just beginning. We will restore honesty, integrity and accountability back to our government. On that, you have my word. But, no matter how hard we try, we cannot undo decades of mismanagement and neglect in a few months.
Unlike the federal government, our state constitution requires us to have a balanced budget by October 1. We cannot balance our budget with cuts alone, not unless we are willing to lay off thousands of teachers and cancel all extra-curricular activities, open prison doors and put convicted felons back on the streets, and force thousands of seniors out of nursing homes and take away their prescription drugs. These are not scare tactics – this is reality - and I cannot, in good conscience, order such cuts.
Therefore, tonight I am proposing what I believe to be the fairest and most comprehensive government reform package in Alabama history. One that will forever change the way government and education operate in our state.
When Ronald Reagan was first elected Governor of California, he faced a similar crisis. When asked why he was raising taxes, he replied, "Because I have no other choice." Neither do we. My fellow Alabamians, our defining moment is here.
Although the need for additional revenue is clear, I refuse to ask the people of this state to pay another dime into this system. I will not ask you for more money to pay for more of the same. Instead, I'm asking you to invest in our future to finally move Alabama forward.
This will be conditioned upon one fundamental concept - change state government and change it for good. We must have real reform and expect real accountability. My plan will unearmark all additional revenue so that we can spend the money where it is most needed-- be it for children, for seniors or for new jobs. It provides for unprecedented reforms in education. Changing tenure rules will make it easier to remove incompetent administrators or teachers. At the same time, we will reward those teachers who show excellence in their classroom. It will allow local officials to make decisions about their schools while demanding strict accountability.
If we are going to ask you to give more, then you are going to get more and still have one of the lowest tax burdens in the nation. For your increased investment in Alabama , we can c reate a better-educated workforce so our children and grandchildren will never have to leave Alabama for better jobs, we can provide college scholarships for any student who achieves the required academic standards, and we will fully fund programs like the Alabama Reading Initiative and the Alabama Distance Learning program in every school.
Education experts agree, with this level of commitment, Alabama can lead the nation in reading scores in just six years. For the first time, Alabama would become a national leader in education. Imagine what that would mean to our students and our workforce - but only if we are willing to make the necessary investment. I know you expect more from our state than what we've had in the past. And so do I.
I have spent most of my life fighting higher taxes. While in Congress, I always voted against tax increases because I know the hardships they place on a family and on a business. No one wants to raise taxes – especially me. And I don't like being forced to do it now – but I believe we have no other choice.
Winston Churchill once observed, "Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others." At this crucial time in our state's history, it will take courage from each legislator, who will determine if your voice will be heard. And it will take courage from each of you. You must now decide what kind of state you want for yourself, your children and your grandchildren. We can take the very best in Alabama and make it better and change state government forever.
I also believe that we can summon our collective courage and make tough decisions and bring about a state worthy of her people.
My fellow Alabamians, it is time to choose.
It is a choice between being first in education or last;
A choice between secure seniors or thousands losing healthcare and prescription drug benefits;
A choice between locking up violent criminals or being forced to release them early;
And ultimately a choice between going down the same path of underachievement or forging a new direction of excellence in Alabama .
I've made my choice.
And now I am asking the members of our state legislature to pass my reform legislation and give the people of Alabama that same choice to decide their future. With faith in ourselves and complete trust in Almighty God, we will resolve the problems we face – together. Of this, there can be no doubt.
In the coming weeks and months, Alabama will witness a spirited debate over its future unlike any held in generations. I encourage you to listen and to become an active participant in this debate and then I hope you will join me in taking Alabama in a new direction. Together, we can finally bring Alabama the greatness she deserves.