Markell eyes new ideas for final State of State Address

DOVER — On Thursday, Gov. Jack Markell will deliver the annual State of the State Address, his eighth and final speech to the General Assembly and the people of the state.

Whether he calls for lawmakers to pass new proposals, cites previous achievements or simply thanks people of Delaware, the 2016 State of the State will at least be memorable as the last given by Gov. Markell.

The governor said in an interview last week he had some new ideas to include in his final address but declined to share specifics. This last speech could include a look back at the past seven years of the administration, with a spotlight on what the governor considers the top accomplishments in that time.

The tenor of his past addresses has varied based on the most pressing issues facing the state, as well as the top priorities the administration wished to set, but talk of economic and job growth consistently has been present.

While the governor’s time in office can be defined by many things, the economy reigns supreme. The economic meltdown sometimes called the Great Recession stretched, by one official measure, from December 2007 to June 2009, causing skyrocketing unemployment and budget crises nationwide.

Elected in November 2008, Gov. Markell immediately was tasked with helping the state’s economy recover.

He’s sought to create and spur initiatives to prepare Delawareans for careers, make the state a more attractive environment for businesses, improve the general quality of life of citizens and, as he said in 2009, “turn our obstacles into opportunity and lead our state boldly into the future.”

Much of what he has said and sought to accomplish can be summed up by one line for his 2012 address: “Creating jobs must remain our number one priority.”

While many of the same themes show up repeatedly, different speeches have had different points of emphasis. Gov. Markell has used the speech to spotlight both planned initiatives and past highlights.

His first speech, the inaugural address given Jan. 21, 2009, came amidst hopes both at the national and state level of a recovery after perhaps the worst economic period since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The governor detailed the fiscal challenge facing the state and his proposed budget, which included cuts to state employees’ pay and spending.

Seeking to provide assurances in a time of uncertainty, he urged Delawareans to remain positive and promised the state would emerge from the Great Recession.

“We gather today in a hall whose walls have echoed from great debates over the most pressing issues of our time. Seventy-six years ago, this building was dedicated by the people for the people as a place where their elected leaders could forge consensus and move with purpose, bold purpose, to set a new course for our state and, through its example, offer guidance to the nation,” he said in prepared remarks.

“Then, Delaware’s dreams were held down by the cold hand of economic uncertainty. That year, 1933, marked the darkest moment in our nation’s financial history.

“But it was also that year — in the depths of the Great Depression — that our nation began down the road to economic recovery. It was that year, in this building, that Delaware looked forward and saw that its greatest days were ahead.”

Consistent themes

His speech the next year opened by discussing the obstacles the state had overcome and the ones that it still faced, and he promised Delaware would move past the challenge and emerge stronger than before.

“Navigating through any storm requires unwavering focus, clear purpose and bold action. During this storm, our focus is on creating more and better jobs and building a stronger economy for us all,” he said. “To do that, Delaware must be the best state to start or grow a business. We will create an environment for new prosperity. We will encourage economic growth, demand a leaner, more efficient government and provide our children a world-class education so they can work in first class jobs.”

He also said the government would spend smartly, and in a continuation of a theme introduced in 2009, he detailed planned education reform.

“Providing a world-class education is not only our moral obligation — our state’s economic future depends on it,” he said.

The next year, with the state continuing to climb upward from the depths of the Great Recession, Gov. Markell again promised Delaware was growing stronger and would continue to do so.

Much of his 2011 address centered on the global world, with the interconnectedness of society creating myriad opportunities but also challenges for workers and companies.

Being able to meet the demands set and skills sought by employers means starting with a quality education system, he said, touting Common Core standards and the Race to the Top program — two initiatives, not unique to Delaware, that have since drawn criticism from many corners.

Smarter spending also remained a point of emphasis in his address.

2012 saw the governor continue the focus on education and career readiness, and he brought up government transparency.

A key takeaway of the speech focused on the modern world. With businesses being able to relocate thousands of miles away with relative ease, preparing citizens for a wide variety of jobs is paramount, Gov. Markell said.

“We must put ourselves in the shoes of those who create jobs,” he said. “We’ve got to understand the industries in our state better than any other state. And we’ve got to be more committed to the success of businesses in our state than any other state.

“We have most of the ingredients that businesses are looking for — good schools and institutions of higher education, reasonable taxes, a high-quality workforce, a wonderful quality of life and a responsive government. Companies considering expansion or investment also value great infrastructure. Whether they are accessing just-in-time supplies, moving products to market or transporting employees between home and office, we want them to know they’ll find what they need in Seaford, not Shanghai, in Bear, not Bangalore.”

A new concern

Job creation and the global marketplace again dominated the 2013 State of the State, although quality of life took on increased focus.

In the speech, Gov. Markell called for increased public safety through gun control, expanded after-school programs and more mental health workers.

Referencing Hurricane Sandy, which hit the East Coast less than three months before the speech, the governor urged the public to consider the state of Delaware’s beaches, forests and marshes.

“A dollar invested wisely today can prevent hundreds of dollars of damage tomorrow, whether by strengthening dikes and dams, conserving wetlands, improving drainage or nourishing beaches,” he said. “The need for this infrastructure exceeds the resources available. We need to have a frank conversation about how to prioritize and finance projects, so that we protect what we can and make realistic choices about what we cannot.”

2014, unlike years past, unveiled ideas to combat substance abuse, fund infrastructure and reform the criminal justice system in favor of greater equality.

The speech put more focus on social issues than many prior ones did and also included mentions of proposals for a water tax and higher gasoline tax, both of which died early deaths after outcry from the public and Legislative Hall.

Gov. Markell’s 2015 speech, his second-to-last address, shifted gears again, moving the attention back to job growth and economic growth. Among the topics mentioned were initiatives to allow high schoolers to take classes for college credits and industry certificates.

He also made another appeal for infrastructure funding, discussed the rapidly changing world economy and highlighted recent state accomplishments.

This year’s speech is likely to include more discussion of key administrative priorities, such as workforce development, business growth and education changes.

A look ahead

With Gov. Markell in his eighth and final year, and now experiencing some pushback from lawmakers and members of the public, exactly what and what is not in the speech could prove revealing.

Legislators attempted Thursday to override a gubernatorial veto of a bill that would allow parents to opt their children out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment but failed to gain the necessary support, preserving a victory for the executive branch.

The governor likely will cite legislation passed by the House this week, with the executive branch’s backing, to change the corporate income tax in hopes of encouraging companies to settle or stay in Delaware.

Previous speeches have included many thanks to lawmakers and cabinet officials and calls for bipartisan.

The tone largely has been positive, although Gov. Markell has not been afraid to highlight what he sees as key issues needing to be addressed — and the consequences to failing to do so.

The address mostly has been serious and straightforward, though the governor occasionally has added humor. In 2015, he singled out Dover Police Master Cpl. Jeff Davis, who gained fame for a video where he danced to Taylor Swift in his car, and the year before, the governor informed lawmakers Secretary of Transportation Shailen Bhatt “was ready to personally plow each of your driveways to facilitate your travel here.”

In anticipation of the State of the State, the governor’s office has been sending out daily emails highlighting areas targeted by the executive branch. The four fact sheets released so far are titled “A smarter, more effective justice system,” “better serving Delaware’s youngest learners,” “stronger schools, better-prepared students” and “fostering more job creation.”

“We will meet the challenges of the world we now live in because of the enduring qualities that make us unique,” he said in 2013. “We are a state of neighbors. We know how to move forward together. So let us shape Delaware for the world we now live in, and the world our children will live in tomorrow.”

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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