Lieutenant Governor Northam, Attorney General Herring, Speaker Howell, Leader Norment, men and women of the General Assembly, distinguished guests, citizens of Virginia – thank you for inviting me to be with you tonight.
A special thanks to my wife, Dorothy, for all that she is doing for Virginia’s children and their families.
I also ask that we all take a moment to thank the 575 brave Virginians in the National Guard who are away from their families this evening, deployed in the UAE, Cuba, Kuwait and elsewhere to keep us all safe.
The head of our Guard is here tonight. Thank you, Major General Tim Williams.
And finally, I welcome the new members of the General Assembly as you begin your first legislative session. I look forward to working with all of you.
When I stood before you one year ago, we were preparing to close a $2.4 billion dollar budget shortfall. We were coping with the drag that federal cuts were placing on our economy and bracing for the potential disaster of another, tougher round of sequestration. And I was speaking through the pain of 7 broken ribs and a punctured lung.
This evening, I am happy to tell you that things are looking up.
Our work to build a new Virginia economy is paying off. We can breathe more freely thanks to a period of relative calm in Washington.
And I’m happy to say that five of my ribs are now healed, and I am certainly breathing more freely than I was a year ago.
Secretary Brown often says that Virginia’s leaders are on their best behavior in a budget crisis. And he has seen a few.
We proved his point last year.
When our finances turned ugly, we went to work.
We toughed it out, protecting our schools from cuts and keeping our economic development plans on track.
We did not agree on everything – but we put partisan battles aside, and we got the job done.
Since then, I’ve seen many of you at groundbreaking ceremonies for new businesses and factory expansions across the Commonwealth.
Each time, I handed you a shovel and said, “Let’s get to work.”
This evening, let’s get those shovels out again and continue working together now that our fortunes have improved.
Last year we worked together to protect and expand our investments in priorities that contribute directly to our goal of a stronger economy. We also agreed on the need to reform programs that were failing.
Those principles should continue to guide our work through this year.
I have introduced a budget that is structurally and fiscally sound.
We must maintain that balanced budget while making strategic investments. Even as our economy improves and our revenues increase, our responsibility to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars remains the same.
And so does the significant power that we in this room have to make a real difference in the lives of the people who sent us here to represent them.
We can change lives by giving the high school student who is uncertain about his future the training he needs to get a great job in cybersecurity.
We can change lives by helping the small business owner make the connections that she needs to sell to customers in China, India and Cuba.
We can change lives by giving a Mom with diabetes the medical care that she needs to stay healthy and to be there for her children.
Those positive changes are at the very heart of the work that we have undertaken together to build a new Virginia economy so that all citizens have the opportunity to maximize their God-given potential.
Henry Ford once said, “It has been my observation that most people get ahead during the time that others waste.”
I know from my own career in business that you cannot take opportunities for granted. If you pass one up, you may not get another.
The same is true for leading this great Commonwealth. The reprieve that we have received from sequestration cuts is our chance to lay a solid foundation for the type of economy that we will need when those cuts return in full force in two short years.
If we work together over the next 60 days, we can expand economic opportunity to Virginians in every corner of the Commonwealth and from every walk of life. And we can show the world yet again that here in Virginia, we do not back down from a challenge. We do not let petty partisan squabbles stand in the way of the progress our families deserve.
Tonight I am here to tell you that the state of our Commonwealth is strong, and that by working together for the next 60 days we can make it even stronger.
And so this evening, that is the vision that defines my message to you. Let us work together to get things done.
Let’s work together to create jobs and build a new Virginia economy.
Let’s work together to transform our education and workforce development systems to meet the demands of our future.
Let’s work together to make Virginia more attractive to businesses and trading partners all over the globe.
Let’s work together to make a real difference in the lives of the friends and neighbors we came here to serve.
Just look back on what we have accomplished as a Commonwealth over the past two years – and reflect on the lives that we’ve changed along the way. One Virginian at a time, day after day.
I started this job convinced that all of our Commonwealth’s challenges trace back to one essential solution: building a new Virginia economy, one that is diverse, sustainable and offers new opportunities for everyone. And the progress that we are making together is a clear indication that we are on the right path to meeting those challenges and beginning a new chapter of opportunity and prosperity.
Think about our accomplishments over the past two years:
State revenues are growing stronger every day in everything from personal income to sales taxes to housing sales.
And I want you to know that I did buy a Powerball ticket, so when I win later tonight, we’re going to see a $40 million spike in state revenues.
As we’ve grown our economy overall, we’ve also sharpened our competitive edge in high-growth industries like cybersecurity and biosciences.
Last month, Virginia beat out 46 other states for a new Air Force Cyber Operations Squadron, to be located at Langley Air Force Base.
And tomorrow I will be in Northern Virginia to cut the ribbon for VISA’s new state-of-the-art cyber fusion center, which will provide threat detection and command and control operations for the world’s largest payment network.
I am proud that Virginia beat out Colorado and Texas for this major economic development project.
Here in Virginia, we’ve also steadily accelerated our push to increase exports of all Virginia products and services to global markets.
Why? Because 95 percent of global customers live outside of the United States, and 81% of all global economic growth will occur outside the U.S. through 2020.
We have visited those markets personally, opening up India to Virginia-grown apples for the first time in history.
And we have worked to lift the bans on poultry exports to Oman and Kuwait.
Just this week, we received our first ever order for two containers of poultry to be shipped to Oman.
And last week, we traveled to Cuba, where we were able to forge a deal between Virginia’s port and the new $1 billion dollar Port of Mariel.
We’ve also assisted 692 Virginia companies eager to tap international markets through our trade programs.
And 182 of those businesses have traveled overseas to make personal connections with new customers and new opportunities.
With us tonight is Vanessa Christie, Vice-President of the Virginia Beach-based company Prevailance, with more than 100 employees. Vanessa is a U.S. Navy combat veteran who spent the majority of her active duty time flying and instructing in the F-14 Tomcat. Her company has historically provided engineering and flight services to the Pentagon and NATO, but now it is moving into international markets.
In the first year of participation in our VALET program, Vanessa has joined our trade missions to the UK, Canada and Mexico, and she has six return business trips scheduled to these international markets this year. This is a defense contractor who is diversifying and creating jobs for Virginians. Thank you for being here tonight, Vanessa, and thank you for your service to our nation.
We’ve also worked together to strengthen Virginia’s agriculture exports.
Last year, we exported a record $3.35 billion dollars in ag products, which moved us up to the Number 2 spot on the East Coast – leapfrogging North Carolina and putting Georgia squarely in our sights. Despite strong global headwinds, we remain focused on meeting my goal of making Virginia the number one ag exporting port on the East Coast.
Our successes in global trade are at the center of the important work that we are doing to build a new Virginia economy – and they are a clear example of the benefits of working together to get things done. The support of Delegate Landes, Senator Hanger and many others for our economic development funding, such as Virginia trade programs and AFID, gives us the tools we need to open new markets for businesses and producers across the Commonwealth.
I am pleased to see that there is bipartisan backing for the $38.9 million dollars in our budget to partner with Go Virginia as it fosters regional collaboration among businesses, government and education leaders to help us achieve our shared economic goals.
These are not partisan successes – they are Virginia successes, and I believe that we are just warming up.
As we ship Virginia products to trade partners all over the globe, we are also making great progress in strengthening our energy economy and diversifying our fuel mix here at home.
We recently announced a historic 80 megawatt solar facility that will power Amazon Web Services’ data centers in Northern Virginia.
This will be the largest solar facility in the mid-Atlantic and the second largest on the East Coast.
It will more than quadruple the amount of solar currently installed in the Commonwealth.
We are also doing our part to power up the solar industry in Virginia with our goal to purchase 8 percent of the electricity needed to run state government from solar generation within the next three years.
Friends, that is a 100-fold increase in our solar usage.
We will make Virginia more energy independent and stimulate economic growth by expanding our use of renewable energy.
Recently, we met with the leaders from Microsoft, Google and Amazon, and they made it perfectly clear that they will only do business and create jobs in states that can provide renewable energy to power their operations. Renewables also offer an opportunity for our manufacturing sector, so that every single solar panel or wind turbine we install has “Made in Virginia” stamped right on it.
I’m proud of what we’ve achieved over the past two years in building Virginia’s economy, and the budget I presented to you in December takes even more aggressive steps to build on our momentum. According to an analysis by Chmura Economics and Analytics, our $2.43 billion dollar bond package alone will be a major boost to our economy, generating
Nearly $850 million dollars in bonds are designated for our four-year universities and $214 million dollars for community colleges to strengthen and expand STEM and workforce programs.
In addition to significant capital investments in research and development, the two-year budget before you provides more than $1 billion dollars in new funds across all levels of education.
We have proposed a significant infusion of resources into our public schools, including $139 million dollars to fund 2,500 additional instructional positions.
We will take Virginia’s investment in public education to $6.78 billion dollars in fiscal year 18, the highest level in the Commonwealth’s history.
Now, this does not mean that we should invest taxpayer dollars in education just for the sake of it. We should invest in smart, innovative programs that get results for the students, communities and the businesses that we serve.
We’ve already made a great start.
Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam and his team worked closely with us to win a $17.5 million dollar annual grant from the U.S. Department of Education to provide high-quality pre-kindergarten classes for 13,000 children.
We began reforming our Standards of Learning by eliminating 5 SOL tests. We made the testing process better without watering down the high standards that we set for our schools and our students.
My team worked closely with leaders in this room like Senator John Miller and Delegate Tag Greason to oversee these important reforms, and the results speak for themselves:
And today, 1, 414 of our public schools are fully accredited -- a 10 percentage point increase in just one year.
But now is not the time to let up.
Let us use these 60 days to strengthen our investment in education, further reform our Standards of Learning and make every single Virginia classroom a place where students are being prepared to lead in the 21st century.
We can start by using new technologies to evaluate student learning without subjecting them to 6-hour SOL tests.
If we work together to provide the necessary resources, by the spring of 2017 we can reduce the time most Virginia students spend taking SOL tests to less than 2 hours through computer adaptive testing.
As important as it is to reduce and shorten tests, it is just a small piece of the work that we must do to build the education system that we need to lead in a global economy. Virginia’s students hold the key to innovation, entrepreneurship and economic growth – what we put into our schools today will be what we get out of our economy 10, 20 and 50 years from now.
You cannot build an economy for 2050 with a 1950s approach to education.
So this year, I have proposed legislation to begin a fundamental change in Virginia’s approach to high school education.
We will put greater emphasis on hands-on learning, internships, early college courses and industry credentials, rather than classroom seat-time.
Our high schools were designed during the Industrial Revolution to prepare workers with the basic information and skills needed for the jobs of that day and time.
This is a particularly urgent matter for more than 2 million Virginians living in rural regions.
As Governor Jerry Baliles has noted in his work on the Rural Virginia Horseshoe Initiative, 21 percent, or more than 400,000 rural residents, have less than a high school diploma.
Our educators are eager to create the schools of the future, and they’re already starting. Here in the Richmond area, a new CodeRVA school is opening next fall that will prepare students to learn code writing. Students will obtain a high school diploma in two years and get a two-year degree at a community college while working in real-world computer science jobs.
The students who graduate from this school won’t have any trouble finding a job.
To all the parents watching tonight, we have 17,000 cyber jobs open with an average starting pay of $88,000.
For those of us old enough to remember the movie, The Graduate, the key word then was “plastics.” Today, it’s “cyber.”
These new high schools that we are designing will benefit students like James DeLoach, an 8th grader in Goochland County who is already a skilled coder and has even designed an award-winning app. Let’s welcome James, who is here with us this evening.
If we are going to prepare students for the jobs of today and create the jobs of tomorrow, we must fundamentally change the way we think about education.
That innovative approach should even extend to the services we offer to students who face unique challenges, like military-dependent children transitioning to new lives here in our Commonwealth. We passed legislation last year to ensure that our schools are doing everything to support the concerns of children of our active-duty military families as they transfer in and out of our public schools. I want to thank the First Lady for her leadership on this issue.
And as we take a new approach to public education, we cannot ignore the fundamental problem that too many students, one in six in fact, lack the basic nutrition they need to fulfill their potential.
I am proud of the progress that we have made on this important issue thanks to our First Lady’s outreach and advocacy. Today 100,000 Virginia students in 26 school divisions are now benefitting from the community eligibility provision, which allows schools to provide meals at no cost to the students or their families.
Across the nation, school participation in this new federal program expanded by 20 percent. Here in Virginia the rate was 139 percent!
We worked together last year to include funding in the budget to support school breakfast programs across Virginia, ensuring that all children start their day ready to learn.
Those dollars are helping 244 schools expand their breakfast programs.
But we had an additional 310 schools seek funding that we were not able to support.
I want to recognize a special guest who’s also with us tonight; Amanda Warren is the Supervisor of School Nutrition Programs at Staunton City Public Schools.
Out of four schools that applied, two were approved to receive additional support for school breakfast. At Bessie Weller Elementary School, Amanda has been able to increase breakfast participation among her students from 33 percent to 91 percent! Can you imagine what she could do with funding for all four schools!
That’s why the budget before you doubles the funding to $2 million dollars so that we can continue our work getting every student the basic nutrition that he or she needs to succeed in the classroom. Thank you, Amanda, for being here tonight.
A strong K-12 system in which every student has access to a world-class education is essential to building a new Virginia economy. But we cannot stop there.
The budget we will work on together also contains funding to make our higher education system more accessible to all students, and to better prepare those students for the economy of the future. In this budget, we invest:
I believe that education is a prime example of the opportunity that we have this session to work together to strengthen our economy and make our state a better place to live. We all agree that is what Virginians sent us here to do.
That is why I remain optimistic. If we sit down at the table together in good will, we can find a way forward together on the important issue of Medicaid expansion.
Each day that we do not close the coverage gap, we forfeit $6.6 million dollars in federal money. Each month we are wasting $15 million in costs to state taxpayers that could be covered entirely with federal dollars.
Just yesterday, Louisiana became the 31st state to expand coverage, along with the District of Columbia. They are now reaping economic, budgetary and quality-of-life benefits that we continue to leave on the table.
Just this past week, I met with Governor Herbert, the chairman of the National Governors Association. He is pushing to expand coverage in the conservative state of Utah. He is at least the third conservative Republican governor who has asked me, with surprise in his voice, “Why wouldn’t you bring your own money home to get health care for your citizens?”
I am convinced that we can find a bipartisan, Virginia solution that totally protects our Commonwealth’s finances while taking advantage of this historic opportunity to make our state a better place to live.
I ask that you review the details of our plan with an open mind and work with me to reach a resolution that will benefit our constituents, our hospitals and our communities.
As I have said before, my door is always open. And history is on our side.
We have come together over and over again on many important issues, including support for our veterans.
Our Virginia Values Veterans program has helped to connect more than 13,000 veterans with companies eager to hire them.
By 2018, we will reach our goal to help 20,000 veterans find jobs and keep them and their skills here in the Commonwealth.
In partnership with Senator Louise Lucas and Leader Kirk Cox, we also secured funding for two new veteran care centers in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
And Virginia was the first and so far the only state in the nation to be certified as functionally ending veteran homelessness.
Anthony Harris is here with us this evening on behalf of the hundreds of volunteers and professionals who worked hard to achieve this goal.
Anthony is a Portsmouth native who served in the Army and now works at Virginia Supportive Housing.
He spent months working with one particular veteran who was living in a tent in Virginia Beach.
I am happy to tell you that Anthony was able to find this man a home by Thanksgiving.
This is not a one-time accomplishment. Virginia is committed to making sure that veteran homelessness is a rare, brief and non-recurring experience from this day forward.
We have put in place a community-based response and service system for identifying these individuals and quickly meeting their needs.
I feel good knowing that whenever a veteran faces a crisis in the future, he or she can be assured that people like Anthony will be there to help. Thank you, Anthony.
Together, we can expand on these accomplishments and make meaningful investments that strengthen Virginia’s position as the most veteran-friendly state in America.
When we came into office promising to transform government and put taxpayers first, our transportation team had a pretty good idea that they were going to be busy. They were right:
We have also made great progress in unlocking Northern Virginia from the congestion that keeps this dynamic region from reaching its full potential.
We are adding new lanes to Interstate 66, which will allow 70,000 more people to move through the corridor each day. We are finally putting an end to the wheel-spinning that has kept this much-needed project from moving forward.
I know there has been a lot of misleading information about this issue, but the facts are clear: After years of inaction, commuters will now have new options that will ease congestion without imposing new tolls on drivers for getting to work the same way that they always have.
And it is just one of the steps we have taken to unlock the Northern Virginia region. We are making life better for commuters by extending the 395 HOT Lanes North to the district line, extending the southbound lanes two miles to clear backups in Stafford County and continuing to support the Silver Line to Dulles and other locations in Loudoun.
Together these projects will strengthen the economy of this key region and our entire Commonwealth.
We have also partnered to strengthen our pension funds for the long term.
Thanks to bipartisan cooperation, thousands of public servants can rest assured that their retirement benefits are on firm footing.
I know that this issue is always on the minds of Speaker Howell and Chairman Chris Jones. Indeed, the Speaker has proposed the creation of a commission to explore the future of the Virginia Retirement System, and I hope that the funds in my budget can be a starting point for moving us toward a stable and sustainable program.
As a first step, I hope that we will work together to fully fund our pension contribution rates by the end of the coming biennium, which will be two years ahead of schedule.
We are all equally committed to supporting our current state workers.
I am proud to be their boss, and I was proud to include pay raises in my budget for our state employees, troopers, college faculty and staff, teachers and school personnel, deputies and other state-supported workers. These men and women work hard to make Virginia the best place on Earth to live, work and start a business, and they deserve a raise.
As you know, it took a lot of hard work to reach agreement on ethics reform last year – but we got it done. And now that the ban on gifts exceeding $100 has taken effect, our constituents can feel more confident that we are acting in their best interests.
To build on this important work, we are proposing campaign finance reforms that would prohibit legislators from fundraising during the veto session and special sessions.
As I did with the gift ban, I will lead by example and introduce legislation that would ban fundraising by governors during the period when they are reviewing bills for approval or veto.
And finally, we are introducing legislation to prohibit the personal use of campaign funds. These are significant steps we can take together to send a clear message to Virginians that we are using the offices they’ve entrusted to us for one purpose alone: Making their lives better.
Transparency and accountability are key to keeping elected officials connected with the people we serve. And so is ensuring that every Virginian who is qualified to vote has the opportunity to do so as soon as possible.
Some of the most meaningful moments in my two years as Governor have been the times when I have restored the civil rights of men and women, many of whom have struggled for years to reach that goal.
We have knocked down barrier after barrier, reducing the waiting period, shortening the application forms, eliminating fees and spreading the word that we welcome you and we want you to succeed.
Secretary Levar Stoney and his team have done an amazing job, and I am proud to announce tonight that a record 16,000 Virginians have now had their rights restored since I took office. This is more than the last three governors combined over their full four-year terms.
I’d love to invite all 16,000 of them to be here this evening, but that would be the equivalent of inviting the entire city of Williamsburg.
But Bobby Blevins is here tonight to represent them all.
Bobby lost his rights more than six decades ago when he was just a teenager.
I met Bobby shortly after his 79th birthday and had the honor of personally restoring his rights.
He was in tears when he told me that he had felt like half a citizen for all those years. But on that day, he became a full citizen and on Election Day, Bobby Blevins went to the polls and voted for the first time in his life.
Thank you, Bobby, for being here with us tonight.
We also need to reach out to young people and quickly get them back on the right path when they commit a crime.
Our old juvenile justice model was a failure.
We spend about $186,000 on each juvenile who ends up in a Virginia correctional institution, and almost 80 percent are rearrested within three years of release.
That’s why our Department of Juvenile Justice is taking a new approach that emphasizes treatment, education and preparation for a productive life outside the criminal justice system.
We’ve already reduced the population in our juvenile correctional centers from 600 to 350.
Our budget builds on our success with a plan that will invest savings in diversion and community-based services.
I know that some of the young people in the system have committed serious offenses, but I also know that they are capable of great achievements.
On the Friday before Christmas, a group of young men from Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center came to the executive mansion to present Dorothy and me with a beautiful quilt that they had designed and created under the direction of their teacher, Roy Mitchell. That quilt, which required almost a year of work, is on display in the lobby of the Patrick Henry Building, and Roy is here as my guest. Thank you, Roy, and your team, for helping so many young people to learn valuable skills and to view the promise of their lives in terms of classrooms and boardrooms, not courtrooms and jailhouses.
On Friday, 73 new troopers and one special agent graduated in Virginia’s 123rd class at the State Police Basic Academy.
We depend on these men and women to be there in a crisis, and they depend on us to provide them with adequate resources and to establish commonsense policies in support of public safety.
That is why I stood with the leaders of the Virginia State Police, sheriffs and police chiefs to announce our Executive Order 50, designed to better enforce gun laws that are already on the books.
I am pleased that Attorney General Mark Herring and Secretary Brian Moran are chairing our Joint Strike Force to Prosecute Gun Crimes.
It is my hope that we can work together on reasonable solutions that will save lives.
We should be proud of what we’ve accomplished and ready to meet the challenges that we still face together.
When I travel around the Commonwealth to the factory floors, the classrooms and the chamber of commerce breakfasts, I find that Virginians are practical, honest people who want their government to focus on its essential duties and to perform them well.
They want quality schools, good roads, reasonable taxes, a meaningful safety net and sound economic policies that will stand the test of time for their children and their grandchildren.
You will see their influence on every page of our budget and in every bill that we will introduce this winter.
Our ideas and proposals are not partisan, nor should they be controversial. I do not expect that you will accept every single one of them, but I am optimistic that our work will be defined more by cooperation than by conflict.
I hope that same approach will be reflected in the bills that you send to me for consideration as this session progresses.
I am ready to work with you on your proposals that will grow our economy, expand opportunity, make our government work better and take better care of our taxpayer dollars.
But I will not hesitate to veto legislation that I believe harms those important goals. Specifically, I am prepared to veto bills that roll back the progress that we have made on marriage equality and women’s access to health care.
I will also reject proposals that limit this Commonwealth’s ability to keep Virginians safe from gun violence or to react to the very clear and present danger of climate change and sea level rise.
Even more important, I do hope that we will treat our newest Supreme Court justice with the respect that she deserves as a jurist who has served our Commonwealth with honor for 22 years.
Allowing politics to deny this qualified and distinguished jurist a full 12-year term would send a dangerous message about this Commonwealth’s respect for the independence of the judicial branch.
It is my hope that our work together this session will be devoted to productive areas where there is room for compromise, and not political sideshows that distract from matters that demand our urgent attention. So let us resolve this evening to spend as much of this important session as possible laying a solid foundation for the new Virginia economy our families deserve.
If we are to reach that goal, each of us has an important job to do.
We must stay focused on our long-term goals.
We must demand more of ourselves and each other.
And we must always remember why we were elected to office in the first place.
On this first day of this legislative session, we face a crucial decision that will guide us for the next 60 days.
I ask you to make a commitment this evening to find a way.
Find a way to bulldoze through barriers and move Virginia’s economy forward.
Find a way to provide all Virginians with the education and training that they need for a good job.
Find a way to build the critical infrastructure to sustain our momentum.
Find a way to change lives for the better.
Right now, at this moment, we can make the right choice and take the next step forward. Together.
Let’s get to work.
Thank you, and God bless the greatest state in the greatest nation on Earth.