The Democrats' response
By Times staff
Published March 7, 2007
Good Afternoon, I'm Bill Heller and as a newly elected member of the Florida State House, representing parts of Pinellas County, it is my privilege to offer the Democratic response to the State of the State address.
My friends, I sit here before you as a newly minted state legislator who has taken a unique journey to this place, one that has taught me many important lessons.
I grew up on a small farm in Northern Illinois, where my parents taught me the value of hard work and the need to care for God's great land.
I have served our country as a paratrooper with the 82nd airborne, where I stood shoulder to shoulder with our nations finest, and learned the value of honor and sacrifice.
I have been an educator all of my life, and more than ever, I truly believe that a world-class education system can be and is the great equalizer.
And At the age of 71 - you may have noticed that I don't look like your average freshman -I proudly join 20 other newly elected Democrats here in Tallahassee, ready to embark on the next step of public service.
My fellow Floridians, I didn't run for office because I believed I had all the answers, nor do I think that Democrats are always right and Republicans always wrong. Like my fellow first-term Democrats, I came to Tallahassee embracing the core belief that we are all better served when we all work together.
I believe in November you sent a loud and clear message. By sending seven additional Democrats to the State House---the largest gain for my party since, well, I was a much younger man--- you were telling us to stop the partisanship and negative campaigning, and start working together to find common ground.
In finding common ground, we must work together to solve the critical problems facing our state: Property insurance and taxes, health care, and my passion, education are, but a few.
Our new Governor, Charlie Crist is an old friend of mine. We met over fifteen years ago when I was the new Dean at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus-and he was a young man running for a seat in the State Senate. While I, along with my colleagues will not abandon our responsibility to be a responsible check on the majority party, I believe our Governor seeks to establish a new and more bipartisan and centrist tone in Tallahassee. And I can assure you that my party will support ideas that are good for Floridians no matter where they come or who supports them.
Just a few minutes ago, Governor Crist issued an important challenge, saying come to me with good ideas and together, we will work for the betterment of Florida.
So here in our limited time, I want to share with you some of our ideas for moving Florida forward:
First: We believe in a state where every child should be challenged to learn at their highest level, not just asked to prove they can meet minimum competence on a standardized test. There is no place for mediocrity. For our children to be their best, they need our best.
I have been an educator all of my life, having taught in classrooms from grade school to college. And if there is one lesson this career has taught me, it is this---as parents, as grandparents, as legislators, the most important thing we can do for our children, as well as to guarantee the best future for this state, is to provide what Speaker Rubio wants, a world class education.
As Democrats, we believe in raising the academic standards in our classrooms, using the FCAT to help teachers identify areas of student strengths and weakness, and giving teachers both the tools and the funding to ensure that every child is learning. We need to reward our best teachers by increasing their salaries in a manner that has meaning. Our Governor's desire to increase salaries is commendable and I know with educators in his family he very much cares about teachers, but a bonus-oriented plan that rewards only 25% of our teachers is not the best approach. Our teachers need to know that their performance will generate a compensation that they can plan on, that will be a part of their salary, not just this year but next year and succeeding years as well.
Second: We believe that it is a moral imperative that every child in Florida has access to quality and affordable health care.
Today more than 700,000 children lack even basic health care. It is time we declare that as a fundamental principle of our state, no child will ever be denied access to quality health care. Our goal is simple: by the end of 2010, no child in Florida should be forced to live without access to quality health care.
Finally: We believe that we must substantially lower property taxes for all Floridians.
There is no greater issue confronting Florida's families. The family home is central to the American dream. If we do nothing else, we must do this. However, there is no easy solution to this crisis. No sound-bite answer, no wand that may be waved. We cannot talk about our future, about moving our state forward, when families are at risk of losing their homes, when families are forced to choose between sending their child to college or their house, between their retirement and their house.
Our House Republican colleagues have introduced a plan that would address the problem by increasing the sales tax to as high as ten percent in some counties. While their plan delivers relief to some people, it delivers a disproportionate amount to Florida's wealthiest residents, while paying for it with what is universally believed to be a regressive tax that impacts our poorest citizens the most. Also, their plan would leave a $6 billion hole in the budget that pays for our school teachers, firefighters and police officers. In its current form, we think their plan is neither fair, nor responsible.
We believe that the guiding principle of any relief must be this: No Floridian should ever be asked to pay more or less than their fair share. We must solve this problem in a way that ensures that every Floridian---homeowner, business owner and renter, sees meaningful relief. And I am confident we can do so without hiking the sales tax to as high as ten percent.
My friends, this is an exciting time to be a Democrat in the Florida House. Governor Crist has opened the door to embracing the best of all our ideas and in return, you will see Democrats in the House working with him in a meaningful and bipartisan way. Together, I believe we can prove that through cooperation, no problem is too intractable to solve.
I am confident the Governor will keep his end of the bargain, and as long as my Republican colleagues in the House stay committed to these values, I do believe together, we can chart a new course for our state.
Our goal is simple: we will help to shine a light on the real problems facing real Floridians-and then, be part of the solution.
Today is a new day in Tallahassee, and if we are willing to put our differences aside and work together for the common good, then tomorrow will be a new day too.
Thanks for listening. God bless you and this great state we call home.