Gov. Jack Markell made clear in his sixth State of the State address Thursday that Delaware is stronger now than it was a year ago, but the state still has further to go in terms of job growth, preventing and deterring crime and providing the state's youngest citizens with a high-quality education to secure a solid future.
"We've made progress, but to paraphrase Will Rogers, even if we're on the right track, we'll get run over if we just sit here," Markell told members of the General Assembly who had gathered in the House chambers of Legislative Hall around 2 p.m. on Thursday.
"Our job growth has outpaced the nation's, highlighted by a thriving financial sector and technological innovation from companies large and small, whether it's the parts manufactured at Miller Metal, the new pharmaceuticals developed at Incyte, the software made at SevOne, or the cutting-edge fuel cells made by Bloom Energy," he said.
Education was one of the key points highlighted in the Markell's address.
Before the end of the decade, 60 percent of jobs will require training beyond high school, he said, but only 20 percent of Delaware's students graduate from high school ready for careers or college.
"Let's ensure that all of our children are on a path to realizing their full potential – whether they choose to pursue a degree or take an accelerated career path," he said.
He proposed a scholarship program that would help all low-income students in Delaware with college potential to take credit-bearing courses in their senior year. He also said that a program in manufacturing technologies will roll out for high school juniors and seniors this coming fall. That initiative will focus on mechanical, electrical and computer engineering.
Administrators and teachers were also addressed.
Markell proposed giving school leaders the ability to spend some of their state resources to implement their own school improvement plans.
Markell recognized that Delaware's starting salaries for teachers are not competitive with its neighbors.
"I want to thank the Delaware State Education Association and the teachers who are working with us on an improved approach to educator compensation … I hope we will be in a position to introduce legislation this spring."
Markell discussed the need for infrastructure improvements, specifically in the areas of transportation and water.
"Infrastructure investments create high-paying, middle-class jobs today and they lay the foundation for future prosperity," Markell said. "It's time to stop complaining about the sorry shape of our Transportation Trust Fund and fix the underlying issues. I propose we invest $1.1 billion over five years."
He also touched on the need to upgrade wastewater and drinking water plants and to improve stormwater infrastructure.
Page 2 of 3 - Markell plans to introduce the Clean Water for Delaware's Future Initiative next month. The goal is to clean up the state's waterways within a generation.
"In our time, this will create jobs. In our kids' time, we will revitalize communities across our state. We owe future generations clean water. It's that simple."
Rep. Darryl Scott, (D-Dover) agreed with the governor's infrastructure proposals.
"I think he laid out a broad, not specific, vision for how to restore our economy," Scott said. "$1 billion in infrastructure improvements is an important goal, and one we will figure out how to pay for."
Markell proposed investing technology by creating a $2 million matching grant program that will leverage federal dollars to support research that will create future jobs. Cybersecurity is a promising area for innovation, he said.
"Hundreds of unfilled jobs in this sector exist in Delaware today," he said. "Our institutions of higher education are positioning themselves to take a leadership role in this area."
The governor also proposed a program to help Delaware's downtown districts.
"I propose we create "Downtown Development Districts" – a small number of designated areas in our cities that will qualify for development incentives and a host of other benefits in housing and transportation," Markell said. "Builders looking to make investments in these districts would receive grants for a percentage of their investment."
Markell proposed that $7 million be put toward those types of projects, however not all members of the legislature felt that Markell addressed the right sectors.
"The No. 1 industry in Delaware is agriculture," said Sen. Gerald W. Hocker, (R-Ocean View). "I didn't see anything mentioned as far as that. The No. 1 priority for the state is jobs in the private sector and I didn't hear anything to encourage that."
Markell noted that for many released inmates, their criminal record makes it difficult for them to be productive members of society. He proposed several changes to help ex-convicts contribute to society.
"I ask you to eliminate the arbitrary loss of a driver's license for crimes that have nothing to do with automobiles," he said.
He also proposed removing the box that asks applicants if they've ever been convicted of a crime for state government hires.
"I didn't particularly like "Ban the Box,'" said Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson (R-Milford) after Markell finished his speech. "I think an employer has the right to know the background of anyone they're employing."
Markell wrapped up his State of the State address by painting a picture of the future.
"Years from now, after the roads have been built, after today's kindergarteners have retired from jobs we helped create, after our cities thrive and our waters run clear, the people of Delaware may not remember us by name or know about the laws we passed or the bills we debated, but in the end that's not what's important."
Page 3 of 3 - Overall, the reception of the governor's address came with mixed emotions.
"He was comprehensive in addressing the compelling issues facing Delaware, said Sen. Brian Bushweller (D-Dover). "I was particularly interested in his proposal to subsidize income revenue for the transportation trust fund, and in the proposal related to the redevelopment of downtowns."
Rep. Simpson said he felt the governor's address was short on specifics.
"I would have liked to have seen more focus on how we're going to make government more efficient rather than how we're going to spend government dollars," he said. "It's easy to spend millions more on programs, but why aren't we looking at programs that have not been successful in the past, eliminate those programs, and use that funding to finance the new programs he's suggesting?"
Rep. Jack Peterman (R-Milford) said while he thought Markell touched on a number of important points, he is unsure how it will all be funded.
"I thought it was a good speech," Peterman said, but "I don't know where the money will be coming from for everything the governor would like to do."
Dover Post reporter Jeff Brown contributed to this article.