Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin delivered his farewell address to the Legislature and the state Wednesday. The speech was fundamentally sound, focusing on what he believes have been his accomplishments while adhering to the record. Tomblin has never been one to embellish.
The tone was, as usual, optimistic, but not Utopian. Tomblin has also never been one to over promise. He allowed himself several personal references. “It has been the greatest honor — and the greatest reward — to serve the people of this state that we all love.” But it was not overly sentimental.
It was classic Earl Ray Tomblin.
Unlike many in politics who seek the spotlight, media attention and seminal moments, Tomblin has spent his 42 years of public service as a grinder; consistent, reliable, predictable. The phrase I heard most when asking people to describe Tomblin was “a steady hand.”
He has been deliberative, almost painfully so at times. His style was to gather information, think about it, gather more information and think about it some more. Usually when I asked policy makers after they met with the governor where he stood on their issue, the reply was, “I don’t know. He didn’t say.”
His focus as governor has been on job creation, workforce training, public education (he was a key player in the landmark education reform bill) and fighting the increasing problem of drug abuse, but the headline of Tomblin’s tenure will always be the budget.
During his time as governor, and through no fault of his own, the coal industry tanked, sending economic shock waves through much of the state as tax collections plummeted. Tomblin responded by holding the line on new spending and cutting $400 million from the budget over the last several years.
Politicians like to propose big new things and build, but because of the economy, Tomblin never had that luxury. He always had to worry about paying the bills, keeping the state’s credit rating high (which he did) and maintaining a sizable balance in the Rainy Day Fund.
He and Bob Kiss, his outgoing revenue secretary who served as Speaker of the House when Tomblin was Senate president, were key players in the decision years ago on a plan to pay down the state’s unfunded liabilities and restore the fiscal soundness of the Worker’s Compensation Fund by privatizing it.
“Time will show he was the most fiscally responsible Governor we’ve ever had,” Kiss said of his friend and colleague.
Tomblin supported phasing out the food tax and lowering business taxes to more competitive levels. It was only in recent times when coal tanked that he relented and supported tax increases to balance the budget.
Keeping the state’s checkbook balanced, paying the bills and maintaining a solid credit rating are not very glamorous, but they are important, and they suited Tomblin’s personality and, more importantly, his understanding of the budget, which is unsurpassed.
He would not be mistaken for a visionary, but he never pretended to be. Tomblin has been practical and, for a person in elected office for 42 years, far less partisan than most. Lord knows how many people have disagreed with him over the years, but the list of those who do not like him personally would be a fraction of that.
Tomblin was never eager to reinvent government, even though West Virginia badly needs a top-to-bottom review to determine what’s working, what’s not and what services and agencies can be consolidated. He has not been interested in that kind of disruption. Interestingly, he’s turning over the reins to someone who appears willing to shake things up.
Tomblin did, however, preside responsibly over the government we have. In doing so he managed to steer the ship of state away from the rocky fiscal shoals with a “steady as she goes” approach.