CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia must ensure that every child finishes third grade reading at that level, offer full-day preschool in all 55 counties within three years, and allow local control of school calendars, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Wednesday in his State of the State address.
The Democrat also vowed to pursue a recent study’s recommendations for easing inmate crowding, predicting $116 million in freed-up funding for public safety 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.
Tomblin said he’ll also propose greater powers for the highways commissioner to partner with private companies on road projects. He also wants lawmakers to create a public nonprofit to oversee redeveloping former industrial “brownfields” sites, and loosen a law he said threatens employers if they don’t pay departing workers within 72 hours.
Seeking business tax cuts and targeting state regulations and the court system, Republicans lawmakers found job-creating proposals “glaringly missing” from the speech, said House Minority Leader Tim Armstead.
“We have 60,000 of our fellow West Virginians who aren’t working, and I didn’t really hear any proposals that I think will put people back to work,” said Armstead, R-Kanawha.
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, he said. It keeps intact funding for the PROMISE college scholarship, public school funding, and once-threatened day care subsidies for low-income parents. Medicaid spending, meanwhile, will increase $142 million to keep pace with costs.
A coalfields native, Tomblin re-affirmed his support for mining. 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 to a standing ovation.
Education dominated the 44-minute speech.
Tomblin drew heavily from a 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 bottom-of-the-barrel student performance rankings.
“Education in West Virginia must change, and that change begins now,” he said, declaring as unacceptable the state’s 78 percent high school graduation rate.