By Jonathan Mattise
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin urged the Legislature on Wednesday to expand educational and economic policies that he thinks could uproot West Virginia from difficult financial constraints.
The Democrat pointed to reductions in business-franchise and corporate income taxes and touted plans for a new ethane cracker plant and three polyethylene plants in Wood County. He also touched on a wide-ranging education bill that was a prominent issue during the last legislative session.
In his State of the State Address, Tomblin also advocated for slight teacher and state worker pay raises, even as West Virginia stares down a $60 million budget deficit. He hopes to balance them out with reserves that have largely been untapped, except in emergencies.
Teachers would receive a 2 percent raise in his budget, while state employees would get a $504 pay boost.
“We continue to experience positive change across the Mountain State and have set in motion many initiatives that will not fully bloom until long after my term has ended — but the hope of a fruitful harvest keeps us working hard each and every day,” Tomblin said during the 43-minute speech in which he likened the work he and state lawmakers are doing to gardening.
Tomblin outlined how he plans to build on those programs, including a proposal to create an A-through-F grading scale for West Virginia’s schools.
He also wants to emphasize science, technology, engineering and math education. Tomblin is suggesting $500,000 more to fuel technical-career-training courses first funded last year.
House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, commended Tomblin’s mix of vocational and higher education.
“By taking the step of putting the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) services at vo-tech centers, I think that would go a long way for people who aren’t necessarily college bound,” Miley said.
Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said teacher pay raises are needed to keep salaries competitive.
“We need to continue to bring them up to the regional average, I’m not saying national, to keep our best and brightest and keep them in the classroom teaching our kids,” Kessler said.
Tomblin emphasized that the state can spur growth without raising taxes. His budget taps into $84 million of a $918 million rainy day fund that is one of the nation’s best.
“Unlike other states that have had to drain their reserve funds during the recent recession, West Virginia did not have to borrow one dime,” Tomblin said.
Tomblin hopes to improve the business climate, as well as fight drug abuse and better prepare the state for emergencies.
Although West Virginia is struggling through a budget deficit, Tomblin said the state remains strong because it prepared itself for lean years.
“We pay our bills on time and we’ve invested in our future by continuing to work together as we face future challenges,” Tomblin said. “We will not impose financial burdens on future generations. In fact, our reserve fund is one of the healthiest in the nation.”
Republican lawmakers said Tomblin gave a well-delivered speech, but said it focused too much on what’s already been accomplished without providing enough detail about what more can be done to improve the state’s economy and schools.
“It was sort of more of a pep talk and looking back than it was a road map for the future and that’s what concerns me,” said House Minority Leader Tim Armstead of Kanawha County. “It’s incredibly important that we take the next 60 days and make some bold changes particularly in terms of education, in terms of economic growth, in terms of our tax structure.”
And Republicans also questioned the ability to follow through on Tomblin’s proposed raises.
“I’m a little nervous about talking about pay raises in a very bad fiscal year. I understand people need the money, but we’re struggling with a big hole in the budget, so it will be interesting to see how he proposes we pay for that,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall of Winfield.
Tomblin ended the speech by saying West Virginia, whose population is declining, has a bright future.
“For those who have left the Mountain State — come home. Come home to take advantage of the growing opportunities that we are creating for you,” he said. “West Virginia’s garden is thriving and we will yield a great harvest for years to come.”