If all politics is local, then all policy is personal. Whether you are cutting a tax or expanding prescription assistance, whether you are preserving a farm or raising academic standards, in doing so you affect the life of a community, a neighborhood, a family, a person. When a tax cut saves a family money that it can put toward mortgage payments, that's personal. When a senior citizen can qualify for PAAD and get the medicine to keep her blood pressure under control, that's personal. When a business incentive leads a company in your community to hire dozens of new workers, and your neighbor is one of them, that's personal too. Let's look at how New Jersey has changed through what we've accomplished together, not just in the past twelve months but in the past seven years. Our state economy is more robust. We've added more than 435,000 jobs since I took office, and our unemployment rate for the past year has been at or below the national average. Our communities are safer, with the lowest crime rate in more than a generation. Our children are better off. New Jersey is one of only six states in America—and the only one in the Northeast—to have reduced the child poverty rate by 33 percent or more since 1993. Even as the state has been growing, our air and water are cleaner, with fewer days of high ozone and carbon monoxide and far fewer beach closings. We've made our schools stronger, with more rigorous tests and standards, a greater commitment to teacher excellence, and a school construction plan unrivaled by any other state. We've cut by more than half the number of people relying on welfare and have greatly reduced the waiting list for community services for people with developmental disabilities. Last, but certainly not least, we've made our state more affordable, with 39 tax cuts that have saved taxpayers nearly $12 billion. By these and almost any objective measure, New Jersey today is a far better place in which to live, work, and raise a family.
What makes this job so rewarding is that each day we have the opportunity to help people make a better life for themselves. That means helping a welfare recipient move from public assistance into a good job. It means helping a couple purchase their first home. It means providing the seed money to turn an idea scribbled on a napkin into a profitable business. Together with this Legislature, we made a commitment for additional money to expand community services for thousands of people with disabilities and for their families. That's what I mean when I say policy is personal. It's giving people the help they need to provide for themselves and their families. It's removing a barrier that may prevent someone from enjoying the quality of life most of us take for granted. For many families in New Jersey, that barrier has been health insurance. Three years ago, I stood before you and shared my vision of affordable health care coverage for every child in the state. Today, more than 75,000 New Jersey children are enrolled in our KidCare program, an enrollment record the Children's Defense Fund ranks among the best in the country. I am also proud that our program has been recognized as one of the most generous in America. Now it's time to reach every child. To complete my vision of universal, affordable coverage for kids, I am proposing that we allow all New Jersey families to purchase insurance for their children through our program at significantly lower rates than in the private market. Last year, this Legislature went beyond providing health insurance for children. In October, we launched FamilyCare, our affordable insurance program for adults. I am pleased to announce that in FamilyCare's first 100 days, we enrolled nearly 60,000 people. Applications for this program continue to pour in at nearly 2,000 per week. FamilyCare is a program in which we can take enormous pride, but we have to complete the job. I urge this Legislature: let's raise the income limits for single adults and couples without children so they're the same as parents already covered by FamilyCare.
All polity is personal, and for me few policies are more personal than our efforts to preserve open space in the Garden State. Raised on a farm, I want every New Jersey child now and in the future to enjoy the character of the state I have always loved. I'm very proud of what we've done together. We've preserved nearly as much land during this administration as was preserved under the Florio, Kean, Byrne, Cahill, and Hughes administrations combined. What's more, I'm pleased to say that as of today, the Garden State Preservation Trust, which the Legislature has supported so strongly, has made commitments of funding that will bring us to 200,000 acres preserved. That's already one fifth of the way to our goal of preserving one million acres by 2010. When I talk about preserving land, I don't want you to think of this land enclosed in glass with a giant "Do Not Touch" sign slapped on it. On the contrary, we want people to visit our parks, historic sites, and wildlife areas. We want them to swim, hike, bike, and explore our state's natural beauty—not just saving our heritage but savoring it. First, however, we must make sure our parks have the facilities to accommodate visitors. This can mean creating a trail, opening an interpretive center, or preserving a treasured historic building. That requires money—not just now, when times are good, but every year, so that our parks and historic areas continue to draw visitors and capture the imagination. Last fall I asked the Garden State Preservation Trust to inventory our needs in state lands stewardship. Based on their recommendations, I propose that we create a stable source of funding to upgrade our State parks, historic sites, and wildlife areas, and add facilities to new state lands. We will call it the State Lands Stewardship Investment Fund and dedicate $25 million for this fund each year from the Realty Transfer Fee that we already collect. Ladies and gentlemen, we are blessed with some remarkable natural and historic resources. Let's make the most of them. Our goal should be nothing less than to create a world-class park system for the State of New Jersey.
I have said that all policy is personal. That's certainly true when it comes to finding a job. By cutting taxes and streamlining regulations, we have removed some of government's biggest barriers to job creation. Four hundred thirty-five thousand jobs later, we can be proud of what we've accomplished. But the job market is a moving target. To continue our success, we must adjust our policies to reflect the changing economy. We've done that, thanks to this Legislature's leadership. Last year you passed my proposal to invest $165 million in a package of high-technology initiatives we called New Jersey Jobs for a New Economy. Thanks to you, we are challenging universities to win more research dollars. We are creating 10 new business incubators and 30 cyberdistricts around the state. We have established a venture capital fund. We will soon build a technology center in South Jersey to match our success in North Brunswick. We've made a great start. Today we can tell our young people with confidence that they can make their way in the new economy right here in New Jersey. But we must do more to secure their place in that new economy, and with your help we will. As I will detail in my budget speech, I am proposing another high-tech package totaling $200 million. Today I will highlight just one part of that plan---one that shows our commitment to lead the way in preparing tomorrow's high-tech workers. Last year we took some very strong higher education programs in our state and made them even stronger. For the first time, we gave out $11 million in High-Tech Workforce Excellence Grants on a competitive basis. Those grants are already making a difference. I visited a program at Stevens Institute that is helping K-12 teachers in our Abbott districts make best use of the Internet to teach science and math, geared to our rigorous new standards. Over at Rutgers, they are using our grant to prepare biotech lab workers. At Bergen County Community College, they are training surgical assistants for high-tech operating rooms. These initiatives reaffirm New Jersey's reputation as the Innovation Garden State. They have warranted our investment—but so did many of the good ideas we couldn't fund last year. So today I ask that you fund High-Tech Workforce Excellence Grants at an even higher level of $20 million. Let's give New Jersey's superb colleges and universities the dollars they need to prepare students for good, high-paying jobs in the new economy.
In my budget speech, I will offer a number of other proposals to help us lock in the progress we have made together since 1994. Chief among them will be a teacher quality initiative that will complement all we have already done to give our children, the outstanding education they deserve. I have chosen to focus on these few plans today—FamilyCare, land stewardship, and high technology—because-I believe, along with education, they reflect some of the most important and, I hope, lasting legacies of our seven years together in Trenton. There's another legacy I hope to leave: a legacy of fiscal responsibility.
Because of our sound planning, tax cuts, and prudent financial stewardship, we've watched our economy grow and outpace all surrounding states. We have seen the rating agencies upgrade our bond rating four times since 1994. Like any responsible family or business, we've used that opportunity to put money aside to help us remain strong—in fact, we've been able to increase our surplus every year. So today, I'm pleased to tell you that in what will be my last budget, I'm proposing a surplus of one billion dollars, the largest ever proposed in our state's history. When I took the oath to begin my second term, I said I wanted to make New Jersey more livable. Considering last month's Quinnipiac poll reporting 86 percent of New Jerseyans rate their quality of life as good or excellent, it's clear we are succeeding. We can be proud of how state government has contributed to New Jersey's prosperity and quality of life. We can be prouder still of how New Jersey people themselves have made this state the best of America. Fellow New Jerseyans, my time remaining as governor may well be measured in days and weeks, not months. Should that day come soon, I will leave the state in good hands, with exciting things in our future: new schools, more relief for property taxpayers, many more acres of open space. We've done great things together because we have put the people's needs first. People often ask me how I would like to have my tenure as governor remembered. I'm sure I speak for all of you when I say that the best thing people can say about our work together is that we have made New Jersey a truly better place in which to live, work, and raise a family--a state that people are proud to call home. Thank you, and God bless the Garden State.
Speech courtesy of the Center on the American Governor.