Tomblin delivers state of the state address
CHARLESTON (AP) – Declaring that West Virginia is poised to gain economic ground in the Great Recession’s wake, acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin detailed a legislative agenda Wednesday focusing on jobs, education and the state’s natural resources.
Tomblin touted the administration’s financial health and recent job gains, such as a Macy’s distribution center planned for the Eastern Panhandle, during a State of the State address delivered to a packed House of Delegates chamber.
The audience included Tomblin’s fellow legislators: as Senate president, the state constitution has had the Logan County Democrat acting as governor since newly elected U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin assumed his new office in November.
From this unique position – Tomblin has set aside his legislative duties while serving as chief executive – he vowed to improve the state’s economy as his top priority.
“I will go anywhere, do anything and spend every waking moment focused on expanding the number of jobs for the people of our state,” Tomblin said.
His proposed budget, also unveiled Wednesday, reflects West Virginia’s relative fiscal stability. It includes a planned cut to the sales tax on food, and one-time payments to teachers, school workers and state employees.
Tomblin said the state stands to benefit after weathering the recession.
“West Virginia is poised for success,” Tomblin said. “The building blocks are in place for unprecedented prosperity and job growth. It is our responsibility to follow through and make government an agent for change that unleashes the private sector’s ability to create jobs.”
To that end, Tomblin proposed a sales tax credit to attract the sort of operation that Macy’s Inc. says will result in 1,900 full, part-time and seasonal jobs. It would also reward existing employers that expand, he said.
Tomblin also wants to update the program that allows local communities to offer tax increment financing to economic development projects.
With the state’s jobless benefits fund forecasting it could go broke in April, Tomblin proposed lending it $20 million from the state’s emergency reserves. That would allow the unemployment compensation program to avoid costly federal borrowing that has 30 states, including four of West Virginia’s five neighbors, owing $41 billion.
Besides offering a modest, $200,000 boost to the Division of Energy’s budget, the coalfields lawmaker pledged to embrace that sector of the state’s economy. He vowed to “aggressively pursue” the lawsuit filed against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by the Manchin administration.
State officials have been at odds with the EPA and the White House over mining-related permit rules and efforts to reduce carbon emissions from such sources as burning coal.
“Do not misunderstand my message: the fact that coal has such a positive impact for West Virginia and our country does not mean that we should turn a blind eye to safety or environmental concerns,” Tomblin also said. “I firmly believe that we can mine coal in an environmentally safe manner. And, I firmly believe that we will develop ways to burn coal in a carbon-friendly manner.”
Tomblin also inherited the ongoing probe into the April explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine. He promised to see it through and carry out its findings, even if that means changes to the state’s mine regulating office. The deadliest U.S. coal mining disaster in decades killed 29 miners.
Equally supportive of the natural gas industry, Tomblin also welcomed the ongoing drilling into the mile-deep Marcellus Shale field.
“The development of the Marcellus Shale has the potential to restart the manufacturing industry in West Virginia,” he said. “It is an opportunity that we simply cannot let go by.”
Without many details, Tomblin promised legislation to develop vocational programs for middle schools, decrease dropout rates and curb teacher vacancies.
“We must make sure that we are using our resources efficiently and appropriately,” he said about education. “When we build or improve our schools, we need to design classrooms that will foster the development of 21st century skills.”
Tomblin said he also wants to create a cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affairs. That would elevate the agency from Military Affairs and Public Safety. Other agenda items included continuing the West Virginia Helpline that links seniors to federal and state aid programs.
After the 45-minute speech, state GOP Chairman Mike Stuart said the veterans proposal appeared at odds with Tomblin’s talk of not “growing government.”
As worth as the agency’s mission is, “the idea of creating a new cabinet-level politician is a very difficult thing for a Republican to support,” Stuart said.
Stuart overall faulted the acting governor’s agenda for not going far enough, particularly in the area of tax cuts and “incentivizing teachers.”
“I think it fell short of the boldness test of what we expect from the governor,” said Stuart, who’s considered a candidate for the office when it’s next up for election.
Tomblin also had his audience applaud a retiring National Guard Gen. Allen Tackett. Tomblin said no one has served longer in such a position nationwide.
Tomblin also asked the crowd to remember the 29 killed at Upper Big Branch mine as well as the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd. The West Virginia Democrat was history’s longest-serving member of Congress when he died in June.