This legislative session has created greater economic security, more opportunity, and a better quality of life for all Vermonters. We came together to make progress for those who elected us to serve. And together we made this biennium one of the most productive and successful in recent memory.
All over Vermont we are seeing the results of the work we've done together.
Vermont now has the second lowest unemployment rate in America, and we've created nearly 11,000 jobs since 2011.
Vermont is now home to one of the top ten most promising tech hubs in America, and our focus on making Vermont a leader in charting a cleaner, greener energy future is paying off. We lead the nation in per capita solar job creation. In 2013 alone, nearly 1,000 solar jobs were created, and in the past three years we have added four times the amount of solar onto the grid.
We've rebuilt for the future after Irene, ensuring Vermont is better prepared to withstand the storms that are headed our way. And we have invested in many of our downtowns, strengthening jobs, housing, and community all over the state. From Kaman Composites in Bennington to WCW in Manchester to GE in Rutland to Mylan in St. Albans, companies in Vermont are thriving, adding jobs, and making Vermonters proud.
But while all of this is good news we know that the job is not done. There are too many Vermonters working harder than ever in this economic recovery, but still struggling to make ends meet and get ahead.
These are the Vermonters who will benefit from the work we have done together these past two years.
JOBS AND ECONMIC
This biennium we continued our focus on creating jobs and expanding economic opportunity for Vermonters. We created the Vermont Enterprise Incentive Fund so that we can act quickly to attract and retain jobs and compete with other states. We boosted VEDA's Vermont Entrepreneurial Lending Program and doubled the capacity of the Small Business Offering Exemption to support small business investment. We doubled the Downtown Tax Credit Program to continue the growth and revitalization of Vermont's downtowns and villages.
Building on the success we've had growing jobs through investments in renewable energy, we expanded net metering to allow more Vermont homeowners and businesses to cut their energy bills, reduce reliance on dirty fuels and create green jobs for Vermonters.
In addition, we made the biggest investment in state history in Vermont's roads and bridges, growing jobs by repairing a record 100 bridges and over 370 miles of roads.
As I said two years ago at the start of my second term, Vermont's future prosperity will be bright if we can take the great education system we have in Vermont and make it the best. During this legislative biennium we have improved education from the earliest years through professional training.
This year we expanded access to universal pre-kindergarten education to all three and four year-olds so every child in Vermont will have an opportunity to arrive at kindergarten ready to learn. Combined with a $37 million federal grant to support early childhood education programs, Vermonters born today will have a brighter future ahead than at any time in the history of our state.
We also expanded opportunities for Vermont students to prepare for the higher skill, higher wage jobs that 21st century employers offer, by providing personalized learning plans, internships and workforce training.
To ensure more working families are able to send their children to college, we've done something truly extraordinary that few states can match: Thanks to expanded dual enrollment, early college programs and the Vermont Strong Scholars Program you passed this session, Vermont students who go to college in Vermont and agree to work in the state after they graduate can now receive up to two years of free college education. As students and parents nationwide struggle with ever-rising student loan debt, we in Vermont are figuring out innovative ways to make college more affordable for middle class families.
We all know that kids cannot learn when they are hungry. I am proud to say that last year Vermont became the first state in the nation to provide free lunch for all low-income students.
The combination of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression and misguided federal cuts to important programs has dealt a blow to Vermont's middle class. This biennium, we took a number of steps to turn the tide and help get working Vermonters back on their feet.
Recognizing that everyone who puts in a full day's work deserves to make a wage that will give them and their family a fighting chance, we're raising the minimum wage higher in each of the next four years, joining a growing number of states nationwide that are moving on their own in the face of congressional inaction.
And we're taking steps to help the most vulnerable Vermonters by increasing the Vermont Rental Subsidy Program and Family Supportive Housing for families who need assistance to stay in permanent housing, by investing $300,000 to help support Vermont emergency shelters and increase seasonal capacity, and by increasing support for child care.
ADDICTION IN VERMONT
In my State of the State speech at the beginning of this legislative session, I said we can no longer afford to avert our eyes to the rising tide of heroin and other opiate addiction here in Vermont. We know this is a crisis every state faces, though few have wanted to talk about it openly. I know the conversation here has been difficult but important, and I am so proud of the progress we have made. Thanks to the legislature's hard work this session, Vermont is now leading the nation by finding innovative ways to address the addiction crisis.
Right now, we are eliminating waiting lists at drug treatment centers, primarily in Chittenden County, the Northeast Kingdom and central Vermont, ensuring treatment services are immediately available to every Vermonter in need.
We're implementing statewide evidence-based assessments and pre-trial services to move addicted Vermonters who have committed certain crimes to support their habits into treatment when appropriate. Judges will now also have the option of tougher sentencing of individuals transporting drugs into Vermont and for those who use dangerous weapons to break into homes and steal property to support a drug habit.
These changes, along with others that enable us to treat drug addiction as a health care issue, rather than strictly a criminal issue, are critical in preserving the high quality of life that Vermonters enjoy, visitors seek, and companies prize when making decisions about where to grow.
I was also proud that the Legislature worked with me to add protections for Vermonters who are victims of domestic abuse, ensuring weapons relinquished by those subject to a relief from abuse order are stored safely and effectively. In addition, we updated the law to prohibit rapists from obtaining visitation or custody rights to children conceived as a result of sexual assault.
We took on tough issues, passing legislation allowing those with painful terminal illness to end their suffering on their own terms and making Vermont the first state in the nation to require the labeling of food produced from genetic engineering.
With the leadership of House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, we pulled together on behalf of working Vermonters, employers, women, children, the environment, and strong communities. When we disagreed, we found compromise and set Vermont on a path for continued success.
This session we proved that democracy is alive and well in Vermont. There is still work to be done, and the road ahead will bring with it a new set of challenges. But thanks to our tradition of working together and focusing on the people who elected us to serve, we'll meet those challenges head on.