Prepared text of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's State of the State address on Wednesday night:
Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, Members of the Board of Public Works, Justices of the Supreme Court of Appeals, Members of the State Board of Education, Members of the Legislature, distinguished guests, and my fellow West Virginians:
In 1921, when architect Cass Gilbert drew the plans for our State Capitol, he put time and attention into every detail of this beautiful structure. He incorporated lavish trimmings of priceless gold, rare crystals, and strong Limestone to signify the "natural wealth found in the people of West Virginia."
This "natural wealth" is visible in almost every inch of this capitol, including the house and senate chambers. Above our heads, you can see the bronze-colored plaster leaf arrangements representing West Virginia's hardwoods. Also above, lining the frieze, you see eagles carved into the structure. The wings-symbolizing protection, are gathered and prepared to take flight. In the Senate Chamber, the eagles' wings are rising - and in position - ready to take action.
Tonight, we come together to do the task the people of West Virginia expect of us: To prepare for our future by taking action. We should take action to keep our families safe. We should take action to create a business climate for good-paying jobs. And, we should take action to build upon opportunities for the next generation.
I'm excited about the state of our State. Working together, we've accomplished great things, and as I stand before you here this evening we are well-positioned to do so much more.
Tonight I present to you a plan-a plan to make this great State even greater for future generations. The plan I'm presenting is a strategy for making State government better and smarter. It's a plan to tackle some of our most critical issues. And, it will ensure our financial house remains in order and continues to keep us moving forward as we build upon our accomplishments.
During the last regular session, we took action that made West Virginia a safer, better place. Because of our work, texting while driving is now illegal and on July 1st talking on a hand-held phone while driving will be against the law. We've kept our promise to make eliminating substance abuse a top priority - and now - laws are on the books to shutdown "pill mills" and stop "doctor shopping." We listened to our communities and invested in drug treatment programs - and we told those who need free job training that they must pass a drug test - first. We are building a registry online to help make our seniors safer and give West Virginia families the peace of mind they deserve when they are looking for a caregiver for a family member. We've lowered taxes for our families and our businesses. Taxes will go down by $40 million this year alone. We told families of children with autism - and teens who were struggling with the thought of suicide-you are important to us. And we dealt with our State's last unmanaged, unfunded liability, with the passage of the OPEB bill. Together, we put a plan in place to pay down this last unfunded liability.
Our State has worked hard to foster job creation by cultivating an environment where employers can offer good paying jobs. Our hard work is paying off. Last year, we celebrated as Gestamp, an $8-billion dollar company, re-opened the South Charleston Stamping Plant. This international company is investing more than $100 million in West Virginia and in the future of hundreds of workers, like Andrew Blatt.
Andrew is a 24-year old Cross Lanes native and an engineering graduate of West Virginia University Institute of Technology. Andrew is overseeing Gestamp's new $22 million dollar laser cutting project. Tonight, I'm happy to be joined by Andrew and another Gestamp employee David Underwood. David, along with all of us, is excited to see this South Charleston landmark revived again. Andrew and David, please stand and let us thank you for showing the world that West Virginia has an outstanding workforce, and that the Mountain State is an amazing place to do business.
West Virginia has created opportunities to welcome international companies like Gestamp by establishing clear rules and lowering the cost of doing business. And while we have achieved success, we have more work to do.
Too many people have stopped looking for work, and too many people are unemployed. Not only do we continue to feel the effects of a worldwide recession, but significant declines in the production of coal have battered West Virginia's economy. This, in turn, has resulted in declining tax revenues and employment.
As leaders of our State, we have a responsibility to fight for jobs, to foster job creation, and to be good stewards of taxpayer resources. We must continue to keep our taxes and cost of doing business low, and this is particularly true when times are tough.
It all starts with our obligation to adopt a budget for the State of West Virginia. Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, the budget I present to you is balanced, with no new taxes.
This time last year, we predicted a deficit that totaled nearly $400 million. Staying true to the hallmark of our fiscal responsibility, my administration began the task of closing that shortfall. Unlike the federal government, we did not kick the can down the road by borrowing money or allowing deficits to mount. We told our agencies, almost a year ago, to do more with less. We challenged them to be smart, be efficient, and be prepared to cut their budgets. In tightening our belts, we realized that some of our programs and services should not face budget reductions.
The budget I present does not cut any scholarship programs, including the PROMISE Scholarship, and it does not cut state aid to our public schools.
Our budget does not take money away from mine safety programs. It does not cut Medicaid or the State Police. While we protected these services, we asked other areas in State government to make a 7.5 percent targeted reduction, allowing us to cut over $75 million from our State's budget, including over $450,000 from my own budget in the Governor's Office. These reductions are not easy, but they are the right thing to do-for future generations.
In addition to these cuts, we examined our accounts in state government. We identified over $135 million in unused monies that can be re-directed and used to meet our obligations in the coming year. While our economy recovers and revenues get back on track, I'm proposing we use these monies, along with almost $140 million in accrued and expected surplus money, to balance the budget for next year.
Balancing our budget sends the right signal to businesses-that West Virginia is stable. But we must do more. We must continue to focus on job creation, lowering the cost of doing business, and eliminating inequities in our system. We also need to help our small businesses. As we know, sometimes it's simple fixes that make the biggest difference.
Under our law, employers are required to pay employees within 72 hours after leaving or face significant damages and lawsuits. Small businesses do not need the hassle of re-running payroll every time an employee moves on. Employers should be permitted more flexibility to pay these employees. It's a simple fix - but it's one that will make a big difference to our small businesses.
West Virginia also needs to identify and remediate land available for development. West Virginia has a strong history in manufacturing and mining, and a number of unused sites have great potential for future development. So tonight, I propose the State form a public non-profit corporation to identify, promote, and oversee programs that will foster economic development and environmental remediation. Working together, we can put these sites back to use in West Virginia.
We also need to find innovative and creative ways to enhance our infrastructure. And while we have a Blue Ribbon Commission examining our road system, one thing I know we must do now is explore and foster public private partnerships to develop our roads.
In 2008, the Public-Private Partnership Act was passed and signed into law. The Act allowed the West Virginia Division of Highways to partner with a private company on the design and construction of otherwise public transportation facilities. This current structure, however, has limited usefulness.
Tonight, I'm proposing legislation to make the Act permanent and streamline the approval requirements to allow the Commissioner of Highways the flexibility to enter into these public-private partnerships. This will allow us to take greater advantage of this innovative tool for the construction of infrastructure.
We cannot talk about jobs in West Virginia without talking about our energy sector-the long-standing foundation of our economy.
As one of the nation's top energy producing states, West Virginia shoulders a lot of the responsibility when it comes to fueling our State and our Nation. Together, members of our energy sector share this responsibility to increase energy independence. We are making the most of the opportunities associated with our abundant natural gas, and we are working with the private sector to take advantage of our natural gas resources by converting more vehicles to compressed natural gas.
We also cannot forget an industry that has been an integral part of West Virginia-and that is our coal industry. This industry continues to enable West Virginia to be a national leader. The dedication of coal miners is the work that built our State and the work that sustains it. 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.
As important as the energy industry is to our economy in West Virginia, there is something more important, more important for our future, more important for our economy, and more important for creating good-paying jobs-and that is education.
I am from Chapmanville in Logan County, a coal town where hard work and long hours provided many families with good incomes. My parents saw to it that I received a great education in high school and at WVU and Marshall. I was the first person in my family to receive a college degree, and I know I would not be standing before you today without it. Every child in West Virginia deserves this same opportunity.
I want to speak to all parents in West Virginia tonight. You are the greatest cheerleader your child will ever have. Please take their education seriously and help them realize their potential-there is no greater force for educational achievement than a dedicated parent.
I will work with the Department of Education, the courts, and DHHR to coordinate our truancy reduction efforts-because every child should have an opportunity to achieve greatness.
The release of our Education Efficiency Audit has stirred discussion and reaction. We have studied every aspect of the audit and reviewed responses from our citizens, from community groups like A Vision Shared, the State Chamber of Commerce, and our valued teacher representatives. We have learned so much.
First, we learned that there are numerous good things about our education system. We have countless examples of not just good but great teachers in West Virginia. We have one of those teachers joining us here tonight from Hardy County. Michael Funkhouser, who teaches English in the Eastern Panhandle, is one of the great educators who works within our school system. Michael, please stand as we congratulate you on being named our 2013 West Virginia Teacher of the Year.
I also want to thank President Yogi Suzuki and Millie Marshall from West Virginia Toyota Motor Manufacturing and Fred Earley and Cathy McAlister from Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield for your long-standing commitment of celebrating our West Virginia teachers. Please stand so we may thank you.
We also learned our State is full of bright children who want to learn. Earlier this year a first-grader from Pleasants County named Ben called my office-all on his own. Ben wanted to inform me about continued traffic delays between his home and school. Ben wanted to make sure I knew, and I quote, "First grade is a pretty big deal - and kids need to be on time for school. This isn't kindergarten, you know." Ben wanted to get to school, and get to school on time.
Just like Michael and Ben, there are other positive things we can say about our education system: like having an improved teacher evaluation program, high ranks for funding and equity, and a nationally recognized 4-year old preschool program.
Even with all the good things happening in our schools our student achievement is falling behind-and that is not acceptable.
Education Week, in its annual survey, Quality Counts, gave us an F for student achievement, ranking us 49th nationally. That is not acceptable.
The only true national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, ranks us below the national averages in 21 of 24 categories, and many of our scores have slipped lower over the past decade. That is not acceptable.
Our graduation rate is only 78 percent which means almost 1 in 4 high school students do not graduate on time. That is not acceptable.
We have the highest percentage of young people ages 16 to 19 not engaged in school or the workforce. That is not acceptable.
Education in West Virginia must change. And that change begins now.
This change must begin with our youngest children. Through the 3rd grade, children learn to read. And after 3rd grade, children read to learn. If a child cannot read at grade level by the end of the 3rd grade, bad things happen. They will remain poor readers in high school, and they will be more likely to become high school dropouts. Thirty-five percent of children in poverty who aren't strong readers by the end of 3rd grade do not graduate on time. We can make sure every child can read at grade level by the end of the 3rd grade by:
First, working with our State Board of Education, we will ensure every new elementary teacher is specially trained in reading. We also must make sure all current elementary teachers are prepared to helping all students learn to read.
Second, although our 4-year-old kindergarten program has high ratings, only 68 percent of eligible students attend. I will introduce legislation requiring every county, within 3 years, to offer full-day 4-year-old preschool.
Third, I will support the efforts of the Benedum Foundation to help establish a process for defining, once and for all, the components and costs of a quality "birth through 5 program".