In a State of the State address that reminisced about his 40 years of public service as well as looked forward to West Virginia’s future, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin called on legislators to set aside political differences and work together for the greater good of the Mountain State.
“We must work together, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as West Virginians united for the common good,” Tomblin said Wednesday evening. “This is West Virginia, not Washington, and we work together to meet the challenges we face as a state.”
With 43 new legislators, and the House and Senate in Republican control for the first time in 83 years, Tomblin addressed a decidedly changed Legislature in his fifth State of the State.
But like his 2014 address, Tomblin devoted as much time during the 45-minute speech to reviewing accomplishments of past years as outlining initiatives for the legislative session.
Those initiatives include capitalizing on the Marcellus Shale boom; finding funding to maintain and build roads, including completing U.S. 35; fighting for coal miners, including providing them with retraining opportunities; promoting initiatives in science, technology, engineering and math education; curbing the epidemic of drug abuse; and continuing to improve the state’s business climate.
Recognizing Delegate Saira Blair, R-Berkeley, who, at 18, is the youngest legislator in the nation, Tomblin reminisced about his first term in the Legislature, 40 years ago.
“Nearly four decades ago, our state was in danger of having the heat turned off in the governor’s mansion because we couldn’t pay our bills. We owed billions of dollars in unfunded pension liabilities. Our credit rating was quickly approaching junk bond status, our residents waited months for their tax refunds, and doctors weren’t being paid for treating patients covered by PEIA,” Tomblin recalled.
Today, Tomblin said, West Virginia is recognized as one of the most fiscally responsible states in the nation, with a strong Rainy Day reserve fund, favorable bond ratings, privatized workers’ compensation insurance and legislation to control medical malpractice lawsuits.
Despite his call to work across party lines, the Democratic governor did signal opposition to a couple of Republican-backed proposals.
“We have worked together to make significant changes to improve our state’s legal system, and I resent those who irresponsibly label us a judicial hellhole,” Tomblin said. “Unreasonable and irrational labels drummed up by out-of-state interests do not help our efforts to engage potential investors and strengthen our economy.”
Republican legislative leaders have said they want to revamp the state’s legal system to discourage what they call frivolous lawsuits. They also have said they want to remove tolls from the West Virginia Turnpike — a proposal Tomblin rejected in his speech.
Noting the critical need for additional highways funding — including his directive Wednesday to make completion of U.S. 35 in Putnam and Mason counties a priority — Tomblin said it would be irresponsible to eliminate the $85 million in revenue the Turnpike produces each year.
“This year, 84 percent of all tolls collected on the West Virginia Turnpike were collected from out-of-state drivers and commercial vehicles,” he noted. “Instead of eliminating tolls, we need to work together to minimize the impact on our residents who travel the Turnpike each and every day.”
Other initiatives Tomblin proposed Wednesday include:
| Taking advantage of the Marcellus and Utica shale “energy revolution,” including a study of drilling opportunities on state-owned property, which he said has the potential to provide “hundreds of millions of dollars in bonus and royalty payments” that could be used to upgrade state parks and fund new tourism initiatives.
| Continuing to promote development of small businesses in the state, including legislation to increase opportunities in the state’s growing craft beer industry.
| Continuing to support the state’s coal industry, including working with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to develop regulations that balance environmental protection with economic development, as well as working with community and technical colleges to retrain displaced miners for careers in high-demand fields.
| Expanding STEM-related education initiatives statewide to help junior high and high school students prepare for careers requiring strong math, technical, computer and mechanical skills.
| Investing an additional $660,000 to expand community-based substance abuse treatment and recovery centers in the Northern and Eastern panhandles.
“With the help of the Governor’s Council on Substance Abuse, we’ve taken bold action to stop the production of meth and increase practice standards for pain clinics to ensure our residents are using prescription drugs responsibly,” Tomblin said of efforts to fight the “heartbreaking problem” of substance abuse. A task force appointed by Tomblin two years ago recommended requiring a prescription for cold medicines that contain pseudoephedrine, a key methamphetamine ingredient, but the governor did not follow through on the recommendation.
| Pursuing a $4.5 million initiative to expand community-based juvenile justice system services, including providing truancy diversion specialists in all 55 counties, and increasing the number of youth reporting centers.
Tomblin did not mention the Jan. 9, 2014, Freedom Industries chemical leak, which occurred one day after last year’s State of the State address, contaminating the water supply for 300,000 West Virginians, and becoming the impetus for legislation to regulate above-ground tanks that became the focus of the 2014 legislative session.
As has become tradition in State of the State addresses, Tomblin recognized a number of guests in the House chambers, including state Teacher of the Year Gail Adams, of Wheeling, as well as a number of business leaders.
The loudest cheers and applause of the evening went to the last guests Tomblin introduced: Lewisburg Police Lt. Jeromy Dove and Patrolman Nicholas Sams, who were shot in the line of duty and wounded during a traffic stop two weeks ago but returned to work this week.
“Just as these two brothers in blue have taught us, we all are part of something much bigger,” Tomblin told the joint assembly. “Among the mountains we call home, we are charting a new path — one built on collaboration and mutual respect — and one that places our state and her people first.”