Five years ago, when I took my oath of office on this stage, the Trenton War Memorial had reached a sad state of disrepair. Look around you now. Once again, New Jersey has a war memorial as majestic and proud as the heroism it honors. I want to thank all those who played a part in restoring this remarkable structure. Since I have been Governor, I'm often asked, "What do you want to be known for? What do you want your legacy to be?" It's a tough question. This state is too diverse, its challenges too great, for us to focus all our energies on any one area, no matter how worthy. I don't want to be known just as the tax-cutting governor. But I'm proud that together, we cut taxes 17 times; that working families are keeping more of what they earn; and that today in New Jersey, more people are working than ever before. I don't want to be known just as the crime-fighting governor. But I’m proud that laws we've passed have made our state a tougher place for criminals and a safer place for families. Today, New Jersey has the lowest crime rate in a quarter of a century. I don't want to be known just as the education governor. But I'm proud that we have put in place tough academic standards; that we have charter schools opening all around the state; and that for the first time in three decades, we have put the spotlight where it belongs: not in the courtroom, but in the classroom. I don't want to be known just as the welfare reform governor. But I'm proud that together we have helped families get back on the road to self-sufficiency. Today, the welfare caseload in New Jersey is 45 percent lower than the day I took office. Our citizens deserve leaders who are tax cutters, crime fighters, education and welfare reformers, and so much more. So let the fullness of our record mark my tenure as governor, and let that record be the health of our economy, the prosperity of our workforce, and the strength of our families.
My fellow citizens, the state of the state is vibrant and vigorous. I'm proud of what we've achieved over these five years. But as we stand at the edge of a new millennium, we can't rest on our record. We need to rededicate ourselves. We need to set our sights on the future. Thanks to you, it will forever be a future of wide open spaces. Because of the Legislature's commitment and the voters' approval, New Jersey is on its way toward an historic achievement: saving one million more acres of open space and farmland. No other state has dedicated as much of its land to preservation. I want to make our commitment even more visible. I want everyone in this state to share in our journey toward one million acres, and I want others who visit New Jersey to watch us reach our goal. Today, I am creating a Garden State Open Space Registry, an acre-by-acre ledger of our progress toward this history-making goal. With the assistance of the Council on New Jersey Outdoors, we will mark down every farm parcel preserved, every acre of open space purchased, every patch donated to a land trust. I want to provide more than inspiration. We should make a financial commitment to those who donate land for preservation. If you do your part to keep New Jersey green, you ought to be able to keep a little more green in your wallet. I am working with the Legislature to create a special cash incentive for land donation in the State of New Jersey. With this initiative, I am confident that we will be able to exceed our original projection for open space donations. This means we'll be able to meet our million-acre goal and have money left over to address an equally vital concern: our parks and playgrounds. Our cities and towns need help to build new ballfields, swingsets, pathways, and other park facilities so that no child will have to travel miles to play. So today, I am pleased to propose that our stable source of funding include 100 million dollars over the next decade for urban, suburban, and rural park development. In addition, with this year's budget we will put more money toward improvements at our state parks. And we will increase State park operating funds so that we can hire 100 more park rangers and maintenance workers. The people have shown that they care about our open spaces. Let's rededicate ourselves to carrying out the will of the people. One million acres: this is our mandate, this is our moment, this is our gift to the future of the state we're proud to call home.
We want our aging parents to continue to call New Jersey home and get the best care and treatment possible. Consider the progress we've made in giving families more options for long-term care. Four years ago there were no assisted living facilities in New Jersey. Today, there are more than 70, with many more in the works. And we now have 13 agencies licensed to place frail elderly in alternate family care or adult foster care. But even that's not good enough. There are still too many seniors being automatically shuttled from hospitals into nursing homes. I want a New Jersey where no one has to go into a nursing home unless they absolutely have to be there and want to be there. How do we make that happen? First, we must talk with seniors and their families before they leave the hospital to find out what they need and then we must give them solid alternatives. For one person, the solution could be assisted living. For another family, respite care could be the answer. Every senior is unique, and we must tailor our programs to meet their needs. Last year, we got the ball rolling. We helped 200 seniors move out of nursing homes and into the community. And we know there are many more who could make that same transition. I'm pleased to announce, in this, the International Year of Older Persons, a comprehensive, 60 million dollar commitment to seniors and caregivers, phased in over three years---a statewide effort to give them every possible option for long-term care. We will start this year by helping at least 1,000 seniors who are now in nursing homes receive care in the community instead. By the end of my term, we expect to interview 43,000 seniors in hospitals and nursing homes and help as many as possible move back into the community. The more seniors we can reach, the more dollars we can reinvest in community care and help for caregivers. Who are these caregivers? It could be you or your neighbor. In New Jersey, one out of every four households is caring for an elderly relative. Sixty-four percent of caregivers are juggling a full- or part-time job with the demands of their caregiving role. Most of us are unprepared for the task. Our loved ones can go from independence to dependence almost overnight, forcing us to make very painful and difficult decisions about their care without the time to find all the answers, or even know where to begin asking the questions. At that moment, caregivers ought to have all the support they need, whether that decision means a nursing home or some other form of long-term care. So for the first time, the State will provide assistance to qualified family caregivers who provide needed services to their elderly relatives at home. We'll start with a commitment in four counties, but by the end of my term, we intend to take this program statewide. Caregivers, I recognize your devotion. I know how exhausting your work can be. That's why the plan I am announcing today will also provide more respite care so you can take a break every now and then. While we're at it, we want to make finding out about respite care, assisted living, or for that matter, any senior service, just a phone call away. Anyone who has tried to get help for a senior can tell you that knowing who to call and what to ask is half the battle. That's why we have set up toll-free senior hotlines in counties around the state. We call it New Jersey EASE. Now we want to make it even easier. I'm pleased to announce that, starting today, we are instituting one New Jersey EASE toll-free number for all of the Garden State. That number is 1-877-222-3737. This means that if your elderly mother lives in Mercer County and you live in Hudson County, you'll have one number to call to find out what services are available in her community. You'll be getting the answers from a real person, not a recording. And that's going to make a difference, no matter where you live.
While we rededicate ourselves to a better New Jersey by helping senior citizens, we also need to help our youngest citizens, our children. First and foremost, we must make sure they are healthy. Last year, I announced New Jersey KidCare, a plan to provide affordable health insurance for more than 100,000 children. My ultimate goal is to make health insurance available to every child in this state. Today, I am taking three more steps to achieve that goal. First, I am pleased to announce that we will expand KidCare coverage. We will now serve children in families up to 350 percent of the federal poverty level, with family contributions on a sliding scale based on income. Second, I want to create a mechanism to help small businesses provide health insurance that both they and their employees can afford. So I am directing my Children's Health Insurance Workgroup to hammer out a plan within 90 days. And finally, I have directed the Commissioner of Human Services to cut the waiting time for KidCare coverage from one year to six months, starting right now. That means thousands more children won't have to wait one day more than necessary to get help. We're keeping our children healthy; let's also rededicate ourselves to keeping them safe. Crime in New Jersey is down. But we have seen enough youth violence nationwide to recognize the dangers our kids face. We have already invested State funds to help new gun owners defray the cost of safety locks. Now I want to take the next step. Today, I am proposing legislation to require that every gun sold in New Jersey either include the new smart-gun technology or be fitted with a safety lock. I don't want one more gun sold in this state without built-in protection for our children. While we're taking care of our children's health and safety, we're also doing more to strengthen their minds.
Every parent sings the praises of a good teacher. By the same token, we cringe when our child gets a teacher whose skills aren't up to speed. New Jersey does not want for teachers. But we do want the best teachers for New Jersey. That's why I am proposing several initiatives that will help us keep our teacher qualifications high. Right now, we require education graduates from New Jersey colleges to carry a C+ average to qualify as a candidate for certification. Well, C+ isn't good enough. So I am asking the State Board of Education to require all new graduates who apply for certification to carry at least a B average. Raising the requirements for every candidate will raise the academic quality of all new teachers across the board. New Jersey children deserve the finest teachers our schools can recruit. So I will direct the Department of Education to step up its efforts to help school districts recruit prospects from top universities here at home and across the nation. I want outstanding students at Princeton and Rutgers, Boston College and the University of Virginia to think about pursuing careers as teachers in the Garden State.
Our public schools are the foundation of a well-educated, highly skilled citizenry. But learning is a lifelong pursuit. We want to ensure that every New Jersey citizen has ongoing educational opportunities. We know that many New Jerseyans would like to earn college credits are unable to attend a traditional college. We know that being a single parent or not having transportation can stand in the way of pursuing a degree. And we know that New Jersey's businesses need ready access to the training colleges can offer. Today, I am pleased to announce an initiative that will put distance learning only a keyboard away. Today, I am opening the doors to what we call the New Jersey Virtual University. This initiative provides an online index of distance learning courses offered by colleges and universities across the state. And it invests 500,000 dollars to help faculty learn how to best incorporate this technology into their curriculum. Individuals and employers can visit the web site to learn about more than 800 offerings available over the Internet or through other technologies. Log on to www.njvu.org and discover that you can earn a master's in engineering online at New Jersey Institute of Technology. Or get an associate's degree at Atlantic County Community College. In fact, the variety of distance learning opportunities is already as diverse as New Jersey itself. Distance learning will never replace the traditional classroom. But it can bring higher education to those who can't get to the classroom. And by helping our institutions reach well beyond our state's borders, the Virtual University will put New Jersey at the forefront of distance education.
Let's make the Garden State all it can be. Look how far we have already come. Together, we tackled the problem of auto insurance. Together, we put standards and accountability back into our schools. Together, we helped thousands of urban families achieve the American dream of home ownership. Together, we made open space a lasting legacy for the Garden State. Together, we cut the income tax. What's more, I look forward to signing a bill that will take another 200,000 low-income New Jerseyans off the income tax rolls altogether. But you know, and I know, we can't make New Jersey the best place in which to live and work and raise a family until we rededicate ourselves to removing the biggest obstacle that remains in our path: rising property taxes. Over the past five years, state government has done its share to help local governments and their property taxpayers: record amounts of school aid; a restructured utility tax delivering reliable and higher amounts of local aid; $200 million a year in property tax deductions on the income tax; $35 million in consolidation incentives recommended by my Property Tax Commission; and an absolute- property tax freeze for more than 250,000 seniors. I'll match what we've done on property taxes against the record of any other governor and any other Legislature in the history of this state. But, it's time to do more. As you know, Senate President DiFrancesco has suggested we address this problem by tying State municipal aid increases to the rate of inflation. I had initial reservations about the proposal. But because the Senate President has insisted that the additional aid spell tax relief, not simply more spending, I am pleased to announce today that I will support his plan. Taxpayers of New Jersey, this proposal does something to help your mayors hold down municipal property taxes. Now I want to do something to help you deal with the biggest part of your property tax bill: the school tax. I said during the campaign that I would put property tax relief at the top of my second-term agenda. I said you deserved to keep more of your hard-earned money. Today, I deliver on that promise. I am proud to propose the single most significant property tax relief that New Jersey has ever provided: one billion dollars in direct relief that will go straight from the State House to your house. One billion dollars. That's on top of our homestead rebate program. That's on top of our property tax deduction. And best of all, it's a check that will be there for you every single year. Under my plan, the State will offset the school taxes each homeowner pays on the first 45,000 dollars of assessed value on that home, providing, in effect, an average 33 percent discount. We will phase in this plan over the next five years. We will make sure that every senior who now gets a homestead rebate will get that check, or a check from this new program, whichever is larger. And to help renters who aren't seniors, we will increase the homestead tenant credit to $100 arid offer it to any renter earning up to $100,000. What will this proposal mean to a New Jersey family? Once the program takes full effect, it will mean an average check for $600 every year. Of course, $600 is an average. We've structured this proposal so those saddled with the highest school taxes will get the most help. So in Pennsauken, you can expect $760. Families nearby in Hamilton Township will get back about $690, in West Orange about $740, and in Deptford about $540. Let me be clear: this billion-dollar tax relief plan will require fiscal discipline from those of us in Trenton. Fiscal discipline means being very cautious about any new spending programs. Fiscal discipline means constantly reminding ourselves that the number one priority is helping you, the taxpayer. The fiscal discipline we show today will deliver a check to you tomorrow.
These, then, are my priorities for the coming year. We will begin our journey toward one million acres of open space and farmland. We will help those caring for aging parents. We will continue to improve our schools and keep our children safe. We will expand opportunities for lifelong learning. And we will tackle property taxes. Ladies and gentlemen, five years ago, I took my oath in this hall. Look how much we have accomplished since then. Today, our future is as promising as this building is magnificent. Today, from Ho-Ho-Kus to Hammonton, more people are working than ever before. Today, from Paulsboro to Paterson, our streets are their safest in a quarter-century. Today, from Andover to Atlantic City, our families have access to good health care and schools that are improving every day. Now it is time to tackle the challenges of a new millennium. Just as we gather to rededicate this building, we must rededicate ourselves to the tasks that lie ahead. Just as we pay respect to the men and women for whom this building was dedicated, we must respect the public trust by doing the will of the people. Just as we expand the roster of New Jersey heroes honored here, we must expand our efforts to serve the people they fought to protect. Their bodies lie at rest, but their example lives on. These New Jersey heroes died to keep us free. Let us honor their lives not only by the cement and ornament of this great building but also by the real work each of us does to build a safer, more secure, more prosperous State of New Jersey. Thank you.
Speech courtesy of the Center on the American Governor.