Markell highlights successes, new goals in final State of State Address

DOVER — Gov. Jack Markell, in his final State of the State Address, called for continued job creation efforts, higher teacher salaries and state employee health care reform Thursday.

Taking a similar tone to most of his prior addresses, he provided both a glance back and a look forward, highlighting a wide range of topics.

The speech made clear the governor aims to both continue many efforts undertaken in the past seven years and to start new ones, in fields ranging from finances to education. Plans to reduce employee health care costs, combat substance abuse and raise starting salaries for teachers were mentioned as an overview, with more details to be revealed Thursday when the governor’s recommended budget is unveiled.

Speaking in the House chamber to a packed room, Gov. Markell called for Delawareans to continue aiming higher “to ensure Delaware’s success for generations to come.”

Taking office in January 2009, Gov. Markell was immediately confronted by high unemployment and a budget deficit. Seven years later, the state has recovered from the recession, he assured listeners.

“Since the national economy bottomed out, Delaware’s job growth of 13 percent has outpaced all of our neighboring states, adding more than 50,000 jobs,” he said.

Minority Leader Sen. Gary Simpson, R-Milford, slightly disagreed while noting Gov. Markell has had little to work with.

“He said there’s more people working than ever before, but again, you’ve got to look at what types of jobs we’re talking about,” he said afterward. “You know, when you lose $125,000-, $150,000-a-year jobs at DuPont and replace it with lower paid banking jobs, the economics just don’t work, but I can’t blame him for that. Unfortunately, he’s not had the resources at any time during his tenure in office to do great things with.

“I think he’s chipping away at some of the minor thing, and that’s what’s left when you’re out of money.”

During the hour-long address, Gov. Markell provided a rundown of many of the programs and changes he has pushed over the past seven years.

“More students are graduating from our high schools — the best improvement of any state,” he said. “And many more of them have already earned college credit. More veterans are finding jobs while fewer are living on the streets. And we’re helping more people with disabilities enter the workforce rather than rely solely on public assistance.

“The air we breathe is cleaner; recreational and cultural opportunities are more plentiful. We have vast new trails and record investments in our libraries and arts community. A small state investment in downtown areas in every county is leading to more than 100 million dollars in private investment. Our prisons are less crowded. We are finding more effective ways to reduce recidivism. And we have taken historic steps toward equality for our vibrant LGBT community.”

The governor’s remarks drew applause on many occasions, although the praise was not always bipartisan. Mentions of LGBT rights and a formal apology for slavery drew tepid responses from many Republican lawmakers.

Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, said the speech is evidence Gov. Markell is not satisfied with his administration’s past work.

“He hasn’t checked out,” he said. “He’s still here. He’s still here and he’s going to be here right til the last day he works.”

Among the governor’s comments was a preview of next week’s budget, which will include details on revamping the state’s health care model in an effort to reduce skyrocketing costs.

“For state employee health plans, spending has risen almost 50 percent since the start of the decade,” he said. “If nothing changes by the end of the decade, it will double to $1 billion. And we have already depleted our $71 million reserve for these plans.”

He said he will propose a plan for future state workers and stronger incentives to encourage people to opt for more cost-effective care.

A state committee has been studying state health care plans for several months in an effort to find a way to slow the rising costs, and Sen. Simpson and Rep. Schwartzkopf were in agreement after the speech that something needs to be done.

Several of Gov. Markell’s initiatives will put additional stress on the budget, but the governor is mandated to present a balanced budget when he unveils his recommendation.

With projected revenue very close to expenditures, the governor’s budget will likely have to include some cuts to allow for more funding elsewhere. Last year, Gov. Markell proposed halving the senior citizen property tax, a proposal ultimately voted down by lawmakers.

The teacher salary proposal could face some opposition from the Legislature.

“We have some of the highest teacher salaries today in the United States, and that would be one of the last things I would ask for, as far as how to spend state resources,” Sen. Simpson said.

As with past addresses, much of the speech centered on education, an area the governor has been heavily involved in throughout his two terms.

“We all know that education is the great equalizer — providing the ladder from poverty to opportunity, separating the citizen from the inmate, distinguishing the vibrant thriving communities from those that seem to be forever in decline,” Gov. Markell said, a line Rep. Schwartzkopf singled out afterward as powerful.

More students are taking Advanced Placement courses, applying to college and preparing for careers, Gov. Markell boasted.

Sen. Simpson and Rep. Schwartzkopf said the speech was largely what they were expecting, highlighting key administrative priorities and shining a light on future goals.

“I’ve been in meetings with him before where he stands up front and tells people all the good things we’ve done that I have set back and just kind of pushed to the back of my mind, and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, we did that. Oh yeah, we did this,’ and it’s good to be reminded sometimes just how much we have done just in the last eight years to make our state a better place,” Rep. Schwartzkopf said.

The governor largely avoided infrastructure and the environment, two themes from recent years, but he did comment on a women’s health issue, announcing a partnership with the nonprofit Upstream USA to make contraceptive options more available.

“I got into politics with the simple idea that we could create an environment where more people could achieve their full potential,” he said. “I’ve come to believe that helping women achieve their own goals and become pregnant only when they want to may be one of the most important things we can do in this regard. There are few times when we can create better outcomes, save money, and create opportunity all at once — and this is one of those rare times.”

At another point, he described recent criminal justice reform and called for legislators to do more.

“Right now, a person with a felony conviction can vote as soon as his or her probation is complete, but only if he or she has paid all fines and fees. People should pay up, but their ability to participate in democracy should not depend on their ability to pay. Let’s join the more than 40 other states that have no financial bar to exercising the most American of rights, the right to vote,” he said.

In a not-so-veiled reference at Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and others who have called for a ban on Syrian refugees, the governor urged citizens to make the state a place that can “lead by example as a place of acceptance and tolerance.”

Sen. Simpson said he felt the speech, like some of the governor’s past addresses, carried a “positive message” but lacked many specifics.

Near the end of his speech, the governor referenced an old Jewish teaching, one he said has driven him throughout his tenure.

“It is not your obligation to complete the task of perfecting the world, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.”

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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