Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

February 14, 2013

State of the State: Tomblin focuses on education

CHARLESTON — West Virginia must ensure that every child finishes third grade reading at that level, help its nationally certified teachers keep their vaunted status and allow local control of school calendars, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Wednesday in his latest State of the State address.

The Democrat also vowed to pursue a recent study’s recommendations for easing inmate crowding, saying that should save $116 million for corrections and public safety efforts over the next six years.

“What we learned was simple: substance abuse is a huge part of prison overcrowding, and the high re-offending rate intensifies the problem,” Tomblin told the Legislature and other state officials in a packed House of Delegates Chamber. “We must act now to address these challenges.”

Tomblin said his agenda for the legislative session that runs until April will also propose greater powers for the highways commissioner, to complete road projects through private sector partnerships. The governor wants lawmakers to create a public nonprofit to oversee the return of former industrial “brownfields” sites to economic use, and loosen a law that Tomblin said threatens employers with lawsuits and damage awards if they don’t pay departing workers within 72 hours.

“Small businesses do not need the hassle of re-running payroll every time an employee moves on,” the governor said.

While touting signs of a stable financial picture, Tomblin outlined a lean spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1. It includes $4.45 billion from general tax and lottery revenues, a nearly $129 million drop from the current budget. It reflects cuts previously called for by Tomblin, which total around $75 million.

The proposed budget avoids tax hikes, layoffs, or tapping emergency reserves, the governor said. It keeps intact funding for the PROMISE college scholarship program, public school funding, the State Police and a previously threatened program that helps low income workers afford child day care.

A native of the coalfields, Tomblin re-affirmed the support for mining he espoused as a longtime legislator and as governor finishing an unexpired term — before winning a full four-year term in November. The industry has lost 5,000 state jobs within the last year, and state revenues have suffered as well.

“I believe in the production of coal, its value to our country, and I will continue to do everything that I can to fight the EPA and its misguided attempts to cripple this industry,” Tomblin said.

Education dominated the 40-minute speech. Tomblin drew heavily from the much-discussed audit that contrasted hefty spending — the proposed budget will devote $2 billion to public schools, or 46 percent of general tax and lottery revenues — with the bottom-of-the-barrel rankings for student performance.

“Education in West Virginia must change, and that change begins now,” the governor vowed.

Tomblin declared as unacceptable the state’s 78 percent high school graduation rate, and the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress rankings that put West Virginia below average in 21 of 24 categories. To reach his third-grader reading goal, Tomblin is enlisting the state Board of Education to make sure all elementary school teachers have that specific training, wants to require all 55 counties to offer full-day preschool within three years, and supports the nonprofit Benedum Foundation’s efforts in this area.

“If a child cannot read at grade level by the end of the 3rd grade, bad things happen,” Tomblin said. “They will remain poor readers in high school, and they will be more likely to become high school dropouts.”

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