NGA Plenary Session
July 16, 2002 


Thank you.  I’m honored to assume the position of chair of the National Governors Association.  This is no doubt the most important national leadership role that I’ll have the opportunity to fill and I’ll do my best to help this organization pursue your agenda.  

My heartfelt thanks to Governor Engler for his allowing me to be a significant part of his leadership team this past year.  He’s presided during our country’s most challenging and trying time in over fifty years.  He’s presided during a year when virtually every state has experienced unanticipated, and in some cases unprecedented, revenue shortfalls.  And during his year as Chair, our nation has experienced the first hostile military attack on our soil since Pearl Harbor.  

During these difficult times he kept us focused on the issues that were the most critical to our states.  His effort on the reauthorization of welfare reform has helped to produce a tripartisan package that could provide greater flexibility to define what counts as a work activity, increased childcare funding, and the continuation of existing TANF waivers.   He encouraged us to refocus on technology and the ever-changing role it plays in state government and on an individual state’s economy.  And he led the effort to nurture clusters of innovation in our states and within regions in order to attract and develop the industries of the new, knowledge based economy.  John, it was an honor and a pleasure to work with you.  On behalf of the 55 governors of the states and territories, I’d like to present you with the traditional NGA commemorative gavel in recognition of your outstanding year as Chairman of this association.  Thank you and your lovely Michelle for your outstanding work and dedication.  Judi and I hope to carry the torch you’ve passed to us as effectively as you both did.

During last year’s NGA conference in Providence the world looked very different than it does today.  While we knew we were experiencing an economic slowdown, I doubt if many of us were prepared for the fiscal crisis most of us have had to face during the past year.  We begin this year in a very different position.  We face many challenges; unique challenges, that are more urgent than the one’s we experienced when our economy was strong.  There’s probably not a governor in this room who hasn’t had to reprioritize the needs of their state because of  budget constraints.  Many of the decisions we’ve had to make were and are extremely difficult and painful.  At the present time nearly all states face revenue shortfalls that have resulted in $27 billion in emergency budget cuts along with employee layoffs in many states.  The experts tell us that we’re in a recovery…but for states, it’s a very slow recovery…a recovery that’ll require us to adjust our way of thinking…and adjust our approaches and tactics.  We must maintain the necessary services our citizens depend on every day while improving the critical programs on which the future of our states rest; programs like education reform, economic development, the new economy and high technology industries and now homeland security.  We must meet this crisis without loosing ground!

As states we’ve had to bear the brunt of the current economic crises…but we can’t afford to become so embroiled in the crisis that we loose sight of the long-term needs of our people.  

First, we must continue to focus on key policy issues being addressed by the current 107th Congress…particularly, by bringing to closure, our efforts  to refine the nation’s welfare reform program.  As governors, we must also encourage our states to continue working together, regardless of what legislation is passed, to improve the quality of life for some of our most “at risk” citizens.

And we must begin to prepare for the 108th Congress. I believe that the reauthorization of TEA-21, along with other transportation related issues, including the reauthorization of AIR-21…and many environmental issues relating to transportation like air pollution and water quality…will make transportation a critical, if not a key focus for us during the 108th Congress.  As an engineer and a native of rural eastern Kentucky, I understand the importance of roads to economic development and quality of life.  Our interstate highway system is the greatest public works accomplishment of the 20th century but the system is in crisis.  This interstate system that we’ve become so dependant on is  overused…and inadequate to meet the demands of our modern society.  But we have a more immediate problem with the Federal Surface Transportation program. Due to a combination of several factors that couldn’t be foreseen when the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st century was enacted, we’re in the midst of a short-term funding crisis.  The formula used to determine federal highway funding has resulted in a proposed 27 percent reduction for Fiscal Year 2003…This is a reduction in critical road funds at the same time we’re experiencing rapidly shrinking state revenues and distressed budgets; and increased congestion on the nations roads.  

We also must work with Congress to seek sales tax equity between our domestic retailers and remote vendors through the state’s Streamlined Sales Tax Project.  

Our success as governors depends on our ability to provide our citizens with the skills they need to succeed.  Skills that will have to be built on…adjusted… and changed over the lifetime of their careers.  During my year as chair of the NGA, we’ll launch two programs that address critical areas in the learning equation…the first initiative will focus on the disturbing number of low performing elementary and secondary schools we have in this nation.  And the second issue will address early childhood development and the importance of preparing our very young children for a successful school career.  

Reaching New Heights: Turning Around Low Performing Schools will be the title of the Chairman’s Initiative.  Governor Kempthorne and I will work with the NGA staff, and each of you to identify strategies our states can take to turn around low-performing schools. A brochure describing this initiative has been placed in front of you.  The school reform movement has had many successes—and I’m very proud of the fact that Kentucky has played a leading role in education reform.  A lot of other states have made great strides in this area, but a number of challenges still remain…one of which is the high number of consistent, low performing schools that are failing our children in communities around this country.  This is an issue that must be addressed if we’re going to provide all children with a quality education.  

This initiative is generously supported by the Broad Foundation, whose CEO Eli Broad has kindly joined us this afternoon. In just a few minutes I’d like to invite him to make a few remarks.

The second education initiative we will undertake is entitled Preparing America’s Children to Learn:  A NGA Task Force on School Readiness.  Governor Kempthorne and I will also Co-Chair this important effort that’ll focus on preparing our young children for a successful school career.  Education must start prior to entering school because research clearly tells us that the majority of a child’s mental development occurs before they enter Kindergarten.  In fact 90% of the architectural structure of the brain is developed by the age of three.  The goal of our initiative is to study the current views of how to prepare children for school and then to identify best practices for actually assessing a child’s readiness.  

I look forward to an exciting year as we work together to serve the people of America. In closing, my six and a half years working in this organization has led me to conclude that the strength of this association is the ability we have as governors to unite around our commonalities, and leave our political differences at home.  The fact of the matter is we are more alike than we are different.  We must continue and strengthen the traditional bipartisan nature of this association.  That’s been the secret of our success.

Almost without exception, all of us are strong supporters of our respective parties.  We believe in their fundamental values.  As a consequence, we as governors will disagree on some important issues.  And outside the context of this organization we’ll compete for the allegiance of the voters.  But as governors, we have a higher obligation than partisan politics.  We must first be champions of progress for our people.  

I’ve had the pleasure to work with almost 100 governors during the past six and a half years.  And I’m pleased to say that as a group you’re among the most honorable and capable people I’ve ever known.  Your confidence in me is very humbling.

To the new vice-chair of the NGA, Dirk Kempthorne, I look forward to a productive year working with you.  Your unique experience at the state and national level will be invaluable to our joint efforts.  I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank you, along with the volunteers and citizens of Idaho for hosting this year’s Annual Meeting.  During the past four days, you and Patricia have been outstanding…and certainly warm hosts.  Many of you may not know this but Kentucky’s new slogan is “Kentucky…it’s that friendly.”  However, after experiencing the hospitality of your citizens and volunteers during the past few days, that might have to become a shared slogan.  You’ve done a good job and we’ve enjoyed it.   

Before we conclude NGA’s 94th Annual Meeting I would like to introduce a very important partner in our Reaching New Heights: Turning Around Low Performing Schools initiative…Mr. Eli Broad, Chair of the Broad Foundation to say a few words.  

In closing, I look forward to the challenges of the year ahead.  As your new chairman I now adjourn the 2002 Annual Meeting of the National Governors Association.