WHEELING - State lawmakers from the Northern Panhandle expected Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to focus on education in his State of the State address Wednesday, and they weren't disappointed.
"There were no big surprises," said Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Glen Dale, who sat at the podium behind Tomblin as he gave his speech. "It was to the point and on the topics I expected - education, the budget, prison overcrowding and substance abuse.
"Education clearly was the most significant highlight, and it appears it will be the thrust of governor's initiative. His proposal was bold in the sense that it adopted suggestions (from the state Education Efficiency Audit) about local control. It was broad-ranging and a great starting point."
Del. Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, was pleased by the financial numbers Tomblin presented. He told lawmakers the state was able to cut $75 million from the state budget and find another $130 million in "unused dollars" to help balance this year's budget. Because of this, no new taxes are needed, and there will be no cuts in such areas as education, the State Police or the P.R.O.M.I.S.E. Scholarship fund.
"I'm glad to see him focus on education," Storch said. "It's very sad that our numbers rank below the national average in 21 categories and we are ranked 49th in the nation in education. That is wrong, wrong, wrong, bad, bad, bad. From what I see, we spend a lot of money on education, and do not get enough return. The money needs to go to the local level - to those working with the students - and not the administrators at the state level."
Del. Ryan Ferns, D-Ohio, said education performance is tied to job creation in West Virginia.
"Everyone knows our education system is not performing well and needs drastic changes," he said. "If the students are not prepared for jobs, jobs (created in the state) are irrelevant. My interest is improving the business climate. Anytime we are attempting to lure business to West Virginia, a special tax structure is created. I would rather see a tax structure that's attractive to all businesses all the time, rather than just one corporation."
Del. Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock, speaker pro tempore of the House, said Tomblin "gave a good speech, but it wasn't one with a lot of flair" or specifics.
"Given the condition of the budget year we're facing, that's understandable," he said. "Gov. Tomblin is a smart old fox. He understands when there is not a lot of money, you can't do a lot of things. ... This is a session where we will live within means, and we will have a balanced budget when we finish in 60 days."
Sen. Larry Edgell, D-New Martinsville, president pro tempore, is a retired teacher.
"I'm glad he concentrated on the youth in the state, especially with education reforms," Edgell said. "I'm glad that we have a balanced budget, and I believe we will maintain that budget with the programs he has started."
Del. Phil Diserio, D-Brooke, also praised Tomblin's comments on the state's budget and education. He also was glad Tomblin touched on a push for natural gas-powered vehicles in the state.
"I know there are no natural gas stations for the general public," Diserio acknowledged. "But with the abundance of natural gas in the Northern Panhandle, we should look at powering school buses and state and county vehicles with natural gas. It could be a huge step for us."
Del. Ronnie Jones, D-Hancock, said he was pleased when Tomblin said taxes in the state will be reduced by $40 million this year.
Jones also liked Tomblin's idea for all-day preschool for those age 4, and his reminder that the last 1 percent of the state's food tax will be eliminated in July.
State Sen. Jack Yost, D-Wellsburg, said Tomblin "wasn't real specific" on the details for his proposal to give counties more control over their school calendar. The idea is a good one, he said, adding climates and atmospheres differ in school districts around the state.
"But the process is not clear, and it also is not clear how we will work to improve teachers or dropout rates," Yost said. "I guess we will see the bills later on."
Del. David Pethtel, D-Wetzel, also spoke of a lack of specifics in Tomblin's speech.
"I like the fact we have a balanced budget without having to raise any new taxes," he said. "I also liked that the governor also said he will lower taxes for families and businesses by $40 million this year."
Tomblin's message that there will be no new taxes this year also resonated with Del. Mike Ferro, D-Marshall.
"I also was pleased he reaffirmed his commitment to coal, and that he is supportive of the industry, especially in Marshall County," Ferro said.
He said Marshall County received the highest amount of local coal severance tax among the 55 counties in the state during the last quarter, and he predicted this amount "is going to go up and up and up."
State Sen. Rocky Fitzsimmons, D-Wheeling, termed Tomblin "understated but effective." He said after Tomblin's words about education, he expected to hear more about gun control and school safety issues. "But that doesn't mean it won't come up in the session," Fitzsimmons said.
Del. David Evans, D-Marshall, also is a retired teacher and said he appreciated Tomblin's words regarding education, as well as his emphasis on vocational education and improving reading skills for students younger than third grade.
"But I don't agree with him starting kids in preschool at age 4," Evans said. "When are kids going to get to be kids anymore?"