A departing Gov. Joe Manchin says he would push for more single-member districts in the House of Delegates, were he staying on as West Virginia’s chief executive.
The U.S. senator-elect told The Associated Press that the upcoming redrawing of legislative boundaries will be one of the tasks he will miss once he leaves office.
Manchin also remains frustrated over the state’s public schools. But he adds that Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin will pursue a planned audit of education spending once he becomes acting governor.
The Democrat outlined his administration’s achievements during his six years as governor in a Friday farewell address. He told AP in a separate interview last week that his legacy hinges on whether his policies point the way toward future gains for long-struggling West Virginia.
“The question also is, ’Did we leave a road map for how to continue to improve?’ I think that will be the telltale sign,” Manchin said. “I don’t think it should stop. It should go to the next level, and I hope we were able to set the foundation for that.”
Manchin also must give up his coveted chairmanship of the National Governors Association, just four months into his yearlong term. Manchin said the group will carry on his “Complete to Compete” initiative which aims to improve college completion rates nationwide.
The winner of the Nov. 2 election for the seat held by the late Robert C. Byrd, Manchin expects to take his Senate oath Monday afternoon. Tomblin will become acting governor.
West Virginia’s Democrat-controlled Legislature will adjust both its districts and those of the state’s U.S. House members next year, prompted by the latest Census. Nearly two-thirds of the state House’s 100 delegates share districts.
“I believe the time has come for single-member districts,” Manchin said. “That delegate would be more attentive and know that area much better than they would in a multimember district. So, is it better service to the citizens and the taxpayers? Absolutely.”
Manchin lauds a team effort that included lawmakers for the strides West Virginia has made since he took office in 2005. The changes range from a privatized workers’ compensation system and new mine safety rules to phased-in tax cuts for businesses and consumers and one of the nation’s healthiest emergency reserves.
The state also continued to strengthen its chronically ailing pension funds, though investment losses somewhat blunted that progress. The efforts have been rewarded with improved or stabilized bond ratings from Wall Street agencies, while other states have seen their credit grades erode.
Teachers and other rank-and-file public employees have seen pay boosts during Manchin’s time — as have agency chiefs, lawmakers, judicial officers and statewide elected officials such as the governor.
Manchin said these and other changes reflect his drive to examine every corner of state government and assess its spending and services to taxpayers. He credits outside advisers, Public Works LLC and the Public Resources Advisory Group, for helping him shape his approach to governing.
But groups representing teachers and state workers have faulted Manchin as they press for further raises. They also sparred with his administration when it ended subsidized retiree health benefits for new state hires earlier this year, and began consolidating information technology services.
Such moves reflect Manchin’s conservative approach to state finances, as do his efforts to revamp the Medicaid insurance program and slow its growth. That, too, has drawn criticism from health care groups and advocates for the poor.
Manchin said his philosophy was reflected in reining in the agencies or boards with the power to issue bonds. He said it also explains why he appointed First Lady Gayle Manchin to the state Board of Education, a seat he said she will continue to hold once he heads to Capitol Hill.
The outgoing governor cited her background and passion for education, but also said he also picked her to improve his grasp of how that department performs. He contrasted the state’s public schools with much of the rest of the state’s executive branch.
“The difference is, education never gets to this desk,” Manchin said.
Two special sessions that focused on education this summer ended with the bulk of Manchin’s agenda idled or watered down. Amid those legislative setbacks, Manchin set the stage for the spending audit. Public education will consume about half of this year’s $3.7 billion general revenue budget.
“West Virginians have a right to know that if teachers have to buy supplies for their classrooms, why,” Manchin said. “If we rank as one of the top, per-child, for spending money to educate a child, where is the money going before it gets to the child? Where is the money going before it gets to the teacher in the classroom?”
The exiting governor has had a close, longtime relationship with his successor. Manchin served in the Senate with Tomblin from 1986 until 1996.
Tomblin agrees with Manchin that an audit of school spending is needed, said Rob Alsop, Tomblin’s incoming chief of staff.
Lawrence Messina covers the statehouse for The Associated Press.