Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for that wonderful, warm welcome. And thank you, Jim, for your very kind words of introduction—and my heartfelt thanks to everyone who contributed to this video tonight, which truly touched my heart. I am deeply honored to receive the Citizen of the Carolinas award. As I look out into this audience, tonight, filled with so many good friends and neighbors, let me assure you—what you have done for me—this award—will be cherished a lifetime. I am so grateful to Duke Energy, the sponsor of the award, and of course the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce.
While I hail from Salisbury, my family was in business for so many years in Charlotte, and of course, my precious brother John and his dear wife, Bunny, are longtime residents of Charlotte, so this really feels like coming home for me. Throughout the years, I have referred to Salisbury as "my personal rock of Gibraltar," where, like Charlotte, you don't need a holiday as an excuse to fly the flag, where families mean so much, and where religion exerts a powerful hold. And in a world where so little seems permanent, we draw strength from eternal truths.
Well folks, now that I've had the pleasure of spending time in all of North Carolina's 100 counties, I know that in describing our home area - - Charlotte, Salisbury -- I could be describing any of the towns and cities across our state—where people have deeply instilled values, rock-solid faith and patriotism, and enormous pride - - in their barbeque, their sports teams and just being Carolinians. For me, there is no question that the Carolinas are truly the best place in the nation to call home.
As our state's 52nd Senator, and its first woman elected to that position, I am humbled, indeed, that North Carolinians have honored me with their confidence. In my Senate work, I strive to respect and uphold those traditions that have made our state great, while at the same time working toward a future that is more prosperous, more secure, and more just for every North Carolinian.
For the better part of the last century, our traditional industries of tobacco and textile and furniture manufacturing were the foundation of North Carolina's prosperity. But in recent years, the forces of the global marketplace have triggered an economic transformation in our state. Tonight I want to focus on a few of the ways I've been striving in the Senate to find avenues for our state's economy to transition into the 21st century.
Take, for example, the tobacco quota buyout. For decades tobacco farmers had been locked in an outdated New Deal program that was never designed to accommodate the major changes that have engulfed this industry. When I campaigned Down East in 2002, I assured our farmers that I would make the tobacco buyout a number one priority. Little did I know what a challenge this would be. First of all, the fact that there are only a few tobacco states produced an enormous stumbling block, so to find members to join this fight was an awesome task. Then Richard Burr and I, along with a handful of other members, had to advocate and engage in extensive persuasion to win over the support of many, including the White House, no less. I'll never forget the day President Bush was asked by a reporter about the tobacco quota buyout at a 2004 campaign stop in Ohio. He responded that he didn't think it was necessary. I immediately hauled about half of the President's policy staff into my office so I could do some "splainin" to them about the urgent need for a buyout. The story spread around pretty quickly, spurring North Carolina farmers to adorn their cars with "No Buyout, No Bush" bumper-stickers. Well, the President got the message, and we got our legislation through Congress and signed into law. Thanks to the buyout, our farmers today have the ability to participate in the free market. If farmers want to continue to grow leaf, they can compete worldwide without an artificial cost increase. Many also have used this opportunity to invest in new equipment and transition to other crops. This "legislative miracle" as I like to call it has pumped about $4 billion into the North Carolina economy.
Let's look at another example of our working to transition North Carolina for the 21st century: last year's Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement. CAFTA has helped our textile industry position itself for the future, but before I voted for this agreement I pushed hard on behalf of the Carolina textile industry to make sure their concerns about CAFTA were addressed by the Administration. Robin Hayes and Sue Myrick were steadfast partners in this effort—and believe me folks, we got good concessions. In recent years, North Carolina's textile exports to the region have grown dramatically—with a 360 percent increase since the year 2000. In fact, Central America is the second largest market in the world for our U.S. textile products. And CAFTA is helping create jobs in other sectors—agriculture, electronics, transportation equipment, and pharmaceuticals. In 2005, North Carolina ranked third in the nation in merchandise exports to the region, with exports totaling 1.6 billion dollars. No question about it, supporting this trade agreement was the right thing to do—for both our traditional and more contemporary industries.
Along with North Carolina's economic growth comes population growth. In fact, North Carolina was the eighth fastest-growing state in the nation last year. As we have heard this evening, by 2026, Charlotte will have an estimated population of 1 million in the city and 4.2 million in the metro area. While we welcome new residents and businesses with open arms, we know that we must plan, update, and build infrastructure and services—from roads and utilities, to schools and hospitals—to adequately sustain this projected growth. And to this end, I have been proud to support increased highway funding for North Carolina—in fact, the 2005 transportation bill provided a 31 percent increase, and a 78 percent increase in transit funding, which is certainly good news for Charlotte, as you continue to advance projects like the South Corridor Light Rail—and I believe those tracks run right through this very building!
So yes, we have an idea of what Charlotte 2026 very well may look like. But what will the rest of North Carolina look like over the next 20 years? Will the Yadkin Valley become the new Napa Valley? Will Steven Spielberg's next Oscar-winning film be made in Wilmington? Will North Carolinians continue to dominate on American Idol? And perhaps most importantly, will the Carolina Panthers win a Super Bowl? But seriously now, we know that North Carolina's economy will expand and our population will become larger and more diverse—and my work in the Senate will continue to reflect our state's priorities, for today and tomorrow.
As I continue my service on the Banking Committee in the 110th Congress, one of my top priorities will be improving regulation of the Government Sponsored Enterprises that buy and sell mortgages—Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Three years ago, after it was revealed that Freddie Mac had misstated its earnings, Senator Hagel, Senator Sununu and I introduced legislation to strengthen the regulation of the GSEs. And Fannie and Freddie responded in full force, dispatching an army of lobbyists to Capitol Hill and spending tens of millions of dollars to oppose our bill. In 2004, their lobbying tab totaled 26 million dollars—and just last year, more than 24 million dollars. At times it has truly felt like David and Goliath! But we have made tremendous progress, and we will press on, working to ensure that the GSEs are being run properly and with adequate oversight—so that the housing sector of our economy remains financially strong.
Another issue I would like to see on the Banking Committee agenda next year is improving the oversight and implementation of section 404 of the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate accountability law. We must ensure that businesses and shareholders receive a benefit from this law that is commensurate with the burden it creates. Those of you here tonight who have to deal with this law know that this balance does not currently exist, and the cost of section 404 of Sarbanes-Oxley outweighs the benefits, placing American companies at a disadvantage in the global marketplace.
And we're focused on helping ensure that everyone, especially low-income individuals, has the opportunity to establish good credit—and enabling families to build wealth, particularly through expanding homeownership opportunities. A record 70 percent of Americans own their own home, and minority homeownership is also at a record high 50 percent. While this is very good news, we must continue to focus our efforts on raising minority homeownership even higher. I simply cannot say enough about the positive effects of homeownership. Studies show that children do better in school and families become more involved in the community. Also, these families are able to build wealth, many for the first time, thereby helping secure funds for retirement and higher education. These positive results have a ripple effect throughout the entire community and the economy.
Tax policies, such as the New Markets Tax Credit, also can help build stronger communities. As many of you in banking are aware, the New Markets Tax Credit program allows qualified investors and institutions to receive a federal tax credit for private investments in low-income communities, stimulating economic development and job creation. This is a program that generates real results—and you can be assured it has my strong support in the Senate.
I also strongly support making the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent—our North Carolina families and businesses should be able keep and invest more of their hard earned income. Tax relief has put our economy on the right course, and to stay on track, we must have a stable, predictable tax policy. Our future economic strength hinges on businesses growing and creating new Carolina jobs, and there is no question that tax stability encourages companies to look ahead and make sound long-term business decisions.
Ladies and gentlemen, more than 6.8 million jobs have been created nationally since the tax relief of August 2003, and the jobless rate fell to 4.4 percent in October. Still, as our overall economy is thriving, the opportunities for lower skilled workers are rapidly diminishing. In fact, the Labor Department estimates that 80 percent of new jobs created over the next decade will require post-secondary education. And in the Carolinas, we are ever mindful that there are areas where the economic picture is not as bright, where factories and businesses have closed and folks are out of work. Since my time as Secretary of Labor, I have advocated for making education and job training a priority and focusing our efforts on closing the gap between skilled and unskilled workers.
I am a huge believer in our community colleges—like Central Piedmont Community College here in Charlotte—which are leading the way in training and retraining workers for high growth fields. I have introduced legislation that is designed to help community colleges and our universities develop stronger links to the workforce and through curriculum development, better prepare students for the jobs of the 21st century. My bill provides assistance for small business owners and operators to receive short-term postsecondary training focused on the skills needed to compete in today's global market, and makes it easier to transfer credits. I am glad to report that my legislation is included in the higher education reauthorization bill, which is on the Senate agenda for next year.
In addition to helping prepare our workforce, our higher education institutions are playing a key role in a booming North Carolina industry—biotechnology. Our state has already seen tremendous success with Research Triangle Park, and we are rapidly expanding our biotech industry with new projects, such as: the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, which has strong partnerships with UNC, Duke and our community colleges; and Piedmont Triad Research Park in Winston-Salem, which is closely affiliated with Wake Forest University Health Sciences. In fact, in 2005, for the second consecutive year, North Carolina ranked third in the nation in the number of biotechnology companies, 40 of which are located in the Charlotte area.
Now some of you may not know that a fellow named Bob Dole was the author of legislation passed by Congress more than 25 years ago that is credited with creating the modern U.S. biotechnology industry. The Bayh-Dole Act gave higher education institutions, businesses and non-profit organizations control of the patents for their discoveries and inventions that resulted from federally-funded research. Prior to Bayh-Dole, federally-funded research was owned by the government. So this landmark legislation has provided a powerful incentive for companies and universities to take the financial risk to develop or improve biotech products. Like my husband, I am a strong supporter of our biotechnology industry, and I will continue to do everything I can to encourage the growth of this sector in North Carolina.
The defense industry is another growing sector of our state's economy. I know that you share my pride in our men and women in uniform and our fine Carolina military installations—and I am privileged to work on their behalf on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Our North Carolina bases—home to more than 100,000 soldiers and Marines—contribute more than 18 billion dollars annually to the state's economy. That is why I joined forces with my colleagues in the North Carolina delegation as well as state and local leaders during the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process to successfully protect and expand our state's military presence. I'm really proud that we came through the BRAC round with flying colors!
We can also be proud that North Carolina universities, textile companies, and other businesses have earned a strong reputation in defense research and development. In fact, four of our nation's top ten defense contractors have operations here in Charlotte. Our state's growing defense industry is helping guarantee that our U.S. soldiers and Marines are the best equipped and most effective war fighters in the world. Period. And we must continue to foster the development of North Carolina businesses that support our men and women in their missions to defend our freedoms.
Ladies and gentlemen, in closing, let me share with you the common-sense words of Henry Luce, co-founder of TIME magazine: "Business—more than any occupation—is a continual dealing with the future; it's a continual calculation, an instinctive exercise in foresight."
As we have already seen here tonight, the Charlotte business community—and the Charlotte Chamber—obviously recognize the incredible value in forecasting what the future holds for this thriving center of commerce. I look forward to working with you on so many issues important to the Carolinas, and I welcome your input as we confront the challenges and opportunities of this youthful century.
Thank you again for this tremendous honor and for the privilege of serving you in the United States Senate. God bless each and every one of you, God bless this great state and this land of the free—America!