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Speech gets mixed reviews from lawmakers

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State Democratic lawmakers praised Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's proposals Wednesday to improve schools and overhaul prisons.

But Republican legislators criticized the governor, saying he did not say enough in his State of the State address about bringing jobs to West Virginia.

"I was very disappointed in the absence of any real proposals to put people back to work," said House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha. "We need to recognize there's an economic crisis."

Tomblin did mention several proposals designed to help businesses. The governor talked about giving small businesses more flexibility with employee payroll reports.

Tomblin also plans to establish a public nonprofit corporation that will identify land suitable for environmental remediation and economic development.

Delegate Gary Howell, R-Mineral, called that proposal outdated.

"We've got industrial parks all over the state, but they're all empty," Howell said. "All I heard was let's do more of what doesn't work. Our [business] tax structures are messed up, and that's where we need to make changes." 

Tomblin's education proposals drew strong praise from Democrats, while Republicans said they'd like to see more details.

An education efficiency audit -- released more than a year ago -- recommended sweeping changes to schools and the state Department of Education.

House Education Committee Chairwoman Mary Poling said she hopes the education efficiency audit doesn't dominate the discussion over education reform.

"I want to take the focus off the audit and be sure we focus on measures that will improve student learning," said Poling, D-Barbour. "Just to do it because it saves money, I don't want that to be our focus." 

In his speech, the governor also said he supports the state school board's push to bring vocational-technical programs into middle schools, while upgrading such programs in high schools.

"I like the idea of engaging those kids before they drop out of school," said House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne.

Tomblin also wants to put the state school board over professional development, and give teachers and principals more say in teacher hiring.

The governor also addressed the school calendar, saying that state law must be changed so that snow days no longer count as instructional days.

Tomblin said his education reform bill wouldn't mandate a specific school calendar on West Virginia's 55 county school systems. Instead, school boards will design their own calendars, which may include year-round schooling.

"To move decisions to the local level is a very good idea," Thompson said.

Delegate Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, said he looks forward to seeing Tomblin's education bill, which the governor's office continues to sharpen.

"He hit the highlights in his speech, but I'd like to see some details," Cowles said.

On jail overcrowding, Tomblin mentioned no specifics, but he made it clear that he supports legislation to overhaul the state's prisons.

Tomblin's bill is expected to target offenders with substance abuse problems and seek to reduce the number of inmates who get released from prison but commit crimes again. 

Thompson said he supports such proposals, but doesn't agree with some recommendations in a recent about West Virginia's prison system that Tomblin mentioned in his address Wednesday night.

The report, for instance, recommends releasing non-violent offenders six months early to reduce jail overcrowding.

"We should not try to reduce our prison population by letting people out early," Thompson said.

During his speech, Tomblin also proposed legislation to make it easier for police to pull over motorists suspected of driving under the influence of drugs.

"This will give law enforcement more tools to do their jobs," Thompson said.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.

 

 

 


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