CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Earl Ray Tomblin said goodbye after 6 years as governor and 42 years in state government with a list of accomplishments, acknowledgement of continued challenges and a sense of optimism.
“It has been the greatest honor — and the greatest reward — to serve the people of this state that we all love,” Tomblin said today in a crowded House of Delegates chamber. “Together, we have put West Virginia first and moved our state forward-even in the midst of tough times, including far-reacting economic shifts, budgetary challenges and historic natural disasters.”
Tomblin’s farewell speech took the shape of a State of the State address with both houses of the Legislature, members of the state Board of Public Works and justices of the state Supreme Court gathering to watch. House Speaker Tim Armstead and new Senate President Mitch Carmichael were seated behind Tomblin.
Tomblin’s final tip of the hat and run around the bases — which included the suggestion of raising the consumer sales tax by 1 percent and eliminating a tax exemption on telecommunications to raise an estimated $270 million toward balancing the state budget — was largely symbolic.
Governor-elect Jim Justice is inaugurated Monday afternoon. The Legislature gaveled in Tuesday but will recess until February 8 to give Justice a few weeks to get established.
— Brad McElhinny (@BradMcElhinny) January 11, 2017
ALSO READ: A classic goodbye from Gov. Tomblin
Tomblin hit the high points of what his administration has accomplished and what still needs to be done, including:
Economic diversification and job creation
He observed the effects of the sagging coal market and said that although hope remains for a rebound, he doesn’t believe it will come back to the boom times West Virginia once knew. He said state residents have struggled with job losses.
“But I believe in — and have fought to reach — the light around the corner,” he said.
He tallied economic successes such as the development of the Procter & Gamble plant in the Eastern Panhandle, the continued expansion of Toyota in Putnam County and economic beachheads like the Amazon customer service center in Huntington, Macy’s fulfillment center in Berkeley County and Bombardier Aerospace in Bridgeport.
Tomblin said that since 2011, West Virginia has seen more than $15 billion in new investments, spanning 275 projects.
“Companies are finding that when they invest in West Virginia, it pays off.”
Workforce training and education
Tomblin emphasized his administration’s role in encouraging community and technical college education and the promotion of science, technology, engineering and math, together known as STEM.
Recovery from natural disasters
His six-year administration had to react to the historic flooding of last summer, the derecho that blew out power in 2012, Hurricane Sandy in 2012, winter storms in 2015 and 2016 and the water contamination in the Kanawha Valley in 2014.
“Through it all, we have grown stronger, we have improved our emergency response capabilities and we have strengthened public safety,” Tomblin said.
Tomblin said his administration has tried to bring together groups to fight West Virginia’s drug epidemic. He said the state and its communities now look at substance abuse as an illness-not a crime.
“And ultimately, we have better controlled incarceration rates, which prevented our state from having to build a new $200 million prison that was projected to be needed because of our previous rising prison population,” he said.
He pointed to the settlements announced this week in two West Virginia lawsuits against drug wholesalers. The settlement amount was $36 million. He said that, plus an additional $11 million from other settlements “will expand our efforts even further for more law enforcement diversion options, more treatment recovery services and many more efforts to fight this epidemic.”
Tomblin took some time to re-emphasize a project he first mentioned in last year’s State of the State address. The project, now called Rock Creek Development Park, would transform the former Hobet surface mine into an industrial park on 12,000 acres on the Boone and Lincoln county line.
The project will require a $93 million, 2.6-mile surface four lane highway to the site.
“My vision for Rock Creek started many years ago as I rode my four-wheeler around the hills of Southern West Virginia and saw the possibilities that such an enormous site-with such a great amount of flat land-could have,” Tomblin said.
Tomblin said he has carefully tended to the state’s Rainy Day Fund and kept a sharp eye on its bond rating. He said that has led to lower interest rates to stretch the state’s investments.
“So when people ask me why I’m so concerned with maintaining our Rainy Day Fund and our bond rating, that’s why. It means more schools, more roads and more homes with clean water,” he said.
He said the state’s tough economic times have meant cutting $600 million from the budget over the past five years.
With the state’s budget expected to face another $400 million gap for the coming year, Tomblin proposed a 1 percent increase in the consumer sales tax to raise $200 million, along with elimination of the current sales tax exemption on telecommunications services.
“I understand these taxes will not be easy, but asking people to pay a few dollars more now is a far better choice than seeing PEIA cards not accepted by medical providers or going back to the days when we couldn’t finance school and road improvements, or even pay the gas bill at the Governor’s Mansion.”
That doesn’t mean the Legislature will comply with the suggestion.
During last year’s State of the State address, Tomblin proposed a 45-cents-per-pack increase on the tobacco tax. He also made the same suggestion to eliminate the sales tax exemption on telecommunications services.
The Legislature wound up passing a cigarette tax increase of 65 cents a pack, but lawmakers left the telecommunications suggestion on the table.
On Tuesday, Tomblin said “I urge you to consider these responsible actions to balance the budget until the brighter economic picture that we all expect comes into focus.”
Tomblin told the other elected officials that love for West Virginia had guided each of them to public service. He said he looks forward to the leadership of incoming Governor Jim Justice.
“And we look forward-with the greatest hope and optimism-to an even stronger West Virginia.
“Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the great state of West Virginia.”
— Brad McElhinny (@BradMcElhinny) January 11, 2017