In his fourth State of the State address, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin touted his administration's accomplishments over the past year, including multiple multi-million dollar investments made by some major international corporations in the final months of 2012.
But his main focus was moving the state forward, his goals for the upcoming legislative session, and, perhaps most importantly, his thoughts on how to accomplish those goals in an obviously tight budget year.
“Governing, like gardening, takes planning, patience and foresight,” Tomblin began.
With the theme of gardening persisting throughout his speech- working diligently now to ensure a bountiful harvest to come- the governor spoke of his efforts over the past year to create that future.
But even in tough economic times, the governor maintains that future is bright.
“My fellow West Virginians, make no mistake, the State of our State is strong,” he said.
“We pay our bills on time and we’ve invested in our future by continuing to work together as we face future challenges. We will not impose financial burdens on future generations. In fact, our reserve fund is one of the healthiest in the nation.”
Tomblin said the state’s Revenue Shortfall Reserve Fund, known more commonly as our Rainy Day Fund, has reached its maximum level of $920 million, but now he and his staff are proposing the legislature use it for its original intent for the first time ever- to balance the state’s budget in difficult years.
In his budget for state lawmakers, members of the administration say the state will have to make up a $148 million shortfall to meet the Constitutional requirement of balancing the budget.
Tomblin is proposing legislators take about $84 million from the Rainy Day Fund and allocate it directly to Medicaid- one of the largest burdens on the state’s budget and one that continues to grow. Secretary of Revenue Robert Kiss says the additional $64 million can be made up from shifting excess dollars out of various accounts in state agencies.
Even after the announcement of mid-year budget cuts last week, the governor will ask state agencies to again take a 7.5 percent budget cut in the coming fiscal year, with the exemption of programs like public education, corrections and juvenile services.
Higher Education, subject to the full cut last year, will only be asked to cut their budgets at just under 4 percent in the hopes a smaller cut will allow colleges and universities to forgo tuition increases.
But even with the cuts, the administration still found ways to meet the demands of one strong lobbying group—teachers.
“We must invest in our future—sow the seeds for tomorrow—and invest in our children and those called to public service,” Tomblin said.
The governor is asking for a two percent raise for teachers and school service personnel as well as a $504 raise for state employees. Both proposed raises are standard in the governor’s six year budget plan, giving the increase every two years. The last 2 percent raise came in 2011.
Aside from issues of the budget, Tomblin is asking lawmakers to reduce government waste by reforming state purchasing laws and dissolving a number of boards, commissions and councils he calls obsolete, making interaction with government easier for West Virginians.
Education will again be at the top of the governor’s proposed legislative agenda as he plans to introduce a number of bills for the legislature’s consideration. Tomblin said that legislation will include an emphasis on STEM- science, technology, engineering and math- as well as career and technical education.
He will introduce legislation making the transfer of credits between higher education institutions in the state easier and is asking the state Board of Education to implement an A through F grading scale for public schools making it easier for parents and communities to understand school ratings.
Overall, the governor’s message was one of moving forward, out of a recession, and into a brighter future by being fiscally responsible, investing in our children and supporting small businesses.
“I’m proud of our team—the one right here in this chamber. I’m proud of the work we have done—together. I’m proud of our planning, our patience, our foresight. I’m proud of the opportunities we now have for our children.”