Legislators' reactions to speech splits along party lines
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia House and Senate Democrats praised education and purchasing reform proposals outlined in Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's State of the State address Wednesday night, while Republican legislators criticized the governor for spending too much time talking about past accomplishments.
"It was a lot of looking back, rather than details about how we're going to fill our budget holes and solve our problems," said Minority Whip Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan.
House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said Tomblin's speech was short on legislative proposals.
"He didn't provide us with a roadmap," Armstead said. "There was a lot of talk about what we've done, not a lot about what we need to do."
House and Senate leaders, however, said there was a lot to like in the governor's speech.
House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said he supports Tomblin's proposals to emphasize science, technology, engineering and math in West Virginia's vocational schools. Tomblin wants to put math teachers in the vo-tech schools.
"I really enjoyed the fact he's focusing on 'STEM' education, and not overlooking vo-tech schools," Miley said.
Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, praised Tomblin for proposing a 2 percent salary hike for teachers and service personnel. Teachers haven't received an across-the-board pay raise since 2011.
"If we truly want to keep our best teachers and attract new teachers in the field, we need to make sure those graduating with education degrees stay in West Virginia," Kessler said.
Tomblin's proposal to give "A through F" letter-grade ratings to schools drew mixed reviews.
Armstead and Cowles said they would support the new rating system, while Kessler and Miley said they wanted to study the governor's proposal.
"I'm sure there won't be many schools that will want to get an F," Kessler said. "I guarantee it."
Miley said such a grading system would help parents identify good and bad schools. But the ratings could unfairly penalize schools in low-income neighborhoods, he said.
"In theory, it will help you identify low-performing schools," Miley said. "The problem is how many of those poor-performing schools that get rated Cs, Ds and Fs are poor performing because they're in lower socio-economic areas?"
Miley and Kessler said they would likely support Tomblin's plan to use money from West Virginia's Rainy Day Fund to balance the state budget and pay for increased Medicaid costs.
"It's something I'm reluctant to do, but if it has to be done on a limited basis ... one time, two times ... that's what the fund was for," Kessler said. "I don't want to open it up, turn on the spigots and empty the pool."
Republicans and Democrats alike said they would support Tomblin's purchasing reform package. Tomblin wants to tighten competitive bidding rules, after recent audits found that state officials circumvented purchasing laws amid a statewide high-speed Internet expansion project.
"We need to ensure there's a better review process for bids," Armstead said. "We also need more oversight."
Miley said state employees who violate purchasing laws must be held accountable.
"It's our job to make sure purchasing laws are followed, and that there are consequences if they're not followed appropriately," Miley said. "I want to see a more stringent purchasing law so nothing falls through the cracks."
Reach Eric Eyre at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4869.