Welcome, all of you, to the start of a new year and to the beginning of the legislative session.
To Ernest Greer and the Georgia Chamber, thank you for inviting me to speak to you this morning. This is the first of three presentations I will make today. The State of the State address will be later this morning and my remarks to the Appropriations Committees of the House and Senate will be this afternoon. While I will not address every issue I consider important this morning, it will include some items that will not be duplicated later today.
Truthfully, I think the General Assembly and I have done many things right during our time together, such as making our state's waterways safer and reforming our justice systems to reduce crime and costs. We have entwined our efforts with members of the private sector, such as the Georgia and local chambers, to ensure we are working with our state and not just for it. For example, your support in such matters as the Georgia Competitiveness Initiative has allowed us to find where our business needs lie and then put plans in action to fill those gaps.
Working together, we have accomplished much. When I deliver my annual State of the State address, I will detail my plans and proposals for the upcoming year, and I'm certainly excited about what we have in store.
For now, I would like to discuss with you another matter of importance, not merely for this chamber but rather for our state as a whole.
It is no secret that we in Georgia have been honored for our great track record. Olympic athletes train their whole lives to earn this recognition; companies long to acquire it; and we have it. Georgia is No. 1. For the first time ever, we have surpassed every other state as the top place in the nation in which to do business!
While it might be inappropriate in this setting to start chanting "We're No. 1," I do think it appropriate to examine how we got here and what we are doing to stay at the top.
I suppose the story of how we achieved our current status dates back to when our ancestors first drew the boundaries of our great state. Geographically, we won the lottery. Eighty percent of the U.S. market can now be reached within a two-hour flight or a two-day truck haul.
We have built on the work of those who came before us and taken every advantage that our geography has allowed us. It is through this tactic of seizing every opportunity and making new ones that we have gone from a good state for business to a great state for business, and it's also why we're now considered the state for business!
For instance, we move more people through Hartsfield-Jackson than any other airport in the world, having just added a new international wing in 2012. It is an important economic development tool and we let every company domestic or global know about it.
We continue to develop our roads, highways and interstates to keep people and businesses moving within our state and onward to others. Of particular note, we are in the middle of the largest project in our state transportation department's history, our Northwest Corridor Project. This project will make use of reversible lanes and innovation from the private sector to relieve tie-ups on one of our state's most congested routes. This new option will mean a more reliable commute for thousands of Georgians.
We are also working on a 400/285 interchange to relieve congestion in another pivotal area; we are completing the Fall Line Freeway to keep our goods flowing throughout the state; and through the Jimmy Deloach Parkway Connector we are better linking the Port of Savannah with our interstate system. Our transportation agencies remain focused on keeping our promises, doing more with less and directing our efforts where they are needed most.
The Port of Savannah, the nation's 4th largest and fastest growing, provides our businesses with a powerful outlet to the rest of the world. For the past 15 or so years, Georgia has pushed to deepen the port so that our businesses and economy can reap the benefits of being able to accept the larger, cost-saving ships coming soon through the Panama Canal. Since I took office, we have made great strides in this area, but we're ready to get this show on the road.
This past year, I went down to Panama to see what progress they were making, and while it was impressive, they apologized for being a little behind schedule, and will not be finished until 2015, a year later than their goal. I told them that's OK, just take your time, we want you to do it right. For after all, we won't be finished with our project by next year either.
While there still remains one additional legislative act to clear the legal hurdles on this project, I want to thank our U.S. Senators and Representatives for their support on it. And Saxby has assured me he will not leave Washington until the current cost level is reauthorized. For our part, my budget this year will include Georgia's last remaining amount for our anticipated portion of the expansion costs.
While we're on the topic of transportation, I would like to highlight some relevant improvements that we have made that enhance the quality of life in our state, which those of us in here know is just as important for drawing jobs to Georgia as any tax credit.
Two years ago, in conjunction with the Georgia departments of Transportation and Public Safety, we committed to keeping traffic flowing on our interstate corridors by clearing accidents quicker. Last year, I added 75 new Georgia State Troopers to patrol the interstates of metro Atlanta during the hours when accidents were most likely to occur. As a result, the average response time to an interstate traffic accident is now less than 10 minutes in Cobb and Gwinnett counties, and the time it takes to clear a crash in these areas has also been reduced to an average of 30 minutes. Every minute that we save goes right back to the drivers in those regions.
Of course, sometimes these accidents are more than mere inconveniences to travelers, and we see many instances on and off our roads where immediate medical attention is needed. Someone hurt in these crashes may require speed beyond what our roads will allow, and in that case, we call in a helicopter to carry them to a hospital. But unfortunately not every region is currently covered by this service as well as we would like. For this reason, I have included in my budget proposal for AFY '14 and FY 2015, over $12M that will go toward providing crucial life flights in southwest Georgia, an area in need of far better access to them. This too is a partnership with the department of Public Safety and local governments, which we are happy to undertake.
Naturally, we have done other things in recent years that have hastened our state's ascent to No. 1, such as enacting sweeping tax reforms that lowered our state's tax burden and lifted our economy! We did this with the help of the private sector and the Georgia Competitiveness Initiative, whereby we boosted our manufacturing sector, supported our farmers and promoted strong families.
We have also put in place efforts to make a more educated Georgia and thus a more prepared workforce, even though we already have the best set of employees in the country. Our future workforce must meet the standards of our current one and meet the demands of our future economy. This is why, from getting our young people reading on grade level by the end of third grade to creating and saving college scholarships, we are working to keep our students moving toward the freedom of a worthwhile degree. A Georgia that learns is a Georgia that leads!
To further last year's efforts to strengthen our workforce in strategic areas by way of our technical colleges, this year I am putting $5M in funds to cover four new areas with expected job growth. These are welding, health care technology, diesel mechanics and information technology. We are also creating a new scholarship to help our highest achieving technical college students more fully afford the cost of their education. And during the State of the State, I will roll out a new higher education initiative that will give you businessmen and women the chance to help form the workforce of our future.
Our ever-improving assets have certainly driven us to our top spot, but there is another aspect to our ranking, one which often gets overlooked. Site Selection Magazine, who dubbed us the best state for business, bases a large part of their analysis on feedback from site selection consultants. These men and women are the ones with whom you consult when you want to learn where you should grow your business or start a new one. We are proud that Georgia sits so favorably in their minds, and we have certainly worked to make ourselves available so that we stay there. These strong relationships and this marketing of our state would not have been possible without the help of the Georgia departments of Economic Development and Community Affairs, the General Assembly and our private partners. Since we have new leadership in both of these two State Agencies, I want to ask Chris Carr, our new Commissioner of the Department of Economic Development and Gretchen Corbin, the new Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs to please stand. These are well qualified individuals who will carry on the excellent work of their predecessors.
To make sure that we can continue to meet the needs of businesses looking to locate or expand in our state, we have included $25M in our AFY 2014 budget for economic development. These additional resources help local communities and development authorities build critical elements needed to attract companies and will allow us to continue to partner with local efforts, which will bring more jobs to our state.
We will continue to build our assets and market our state to the global economy. In doing so, we hope to hold onto our position as No. 1. But let us consider for a moment what our rank means. Is this a trophy that will sit on our shelf until dust collects and we have only to reminisce about our glory days? Or is there more to it?
Surely the meaning of our ranking will not quickly fade, for there is nothing fleeting about it. Our renown brings investments to our economy and jobs to our citizens.
We have made great progress. As a result of our efforts, we have attracted the eyes of businessmen and women such as you, and this new ranking will certainly put us within sight of many more. In fact, during my term so far, we have attracted more than 1,100 projects and $16.3B in investment.
These projects are paying off. The carpet and flooring community in Northwest Georgia, for instance, was hard hit by the recession, but we have recently announced approximately 3,000 flooring-related jobs going to that region. In terms of projects committed to our state during my administration, we have seen approximately a 40 percent growth in job creation compared to the height of the Great Recession.
These new additions take time to complete and open. As they do, I suspect we shall continue to see the unemployment rate drop. It is currently at its lowest point in half a decade.
We will keep building up our state, marketing Georgia and reaching out to companies for input and investment. We will seek investments from all businesses for all parts of our state, and not just new businesses for a few big cities. In FY 2013, 2/3 of the projects came from existing businesses in Georgia deciding to expand. Their successes are our successes. In addition, more than half of the jobs created from our projects and more than three quarters of the state's investment were headed to areas outside of metro Atlanta.
We captured the top spot by capitalizing on advantages, by using innovation, by investing in crucial resources, by building relationships and by listening to the needs of the private sector. We will work to stay No. 1 by amplifying those efforts, and our agenda this year reflects that promise.
We thank you for your support and we welcome your continued partnership as we continue to move Georgia forward.