By Mannix Porterfield
Under a battleship gray sky, filled with clouds that threatened but never opened, Earl Ray Tomblin took the oath Monday as West Virginia’s governor — fittingly as the 35 in the 35th state to join the Union — with promises to correct education’s flaws and maintain his fight for the coal industry.
In a 17-minute speech, often interrupted by applause from a crowd in folding chairs and bundled well against nippy weather on the wind-swept lawn on the river side of the Capitol, the governor also vowed to keep up the war against drug abuse and improve life in the Mountain State.
“I will continue to spend every minute working to make West Virginia a better place,” the Logan County native said.
Tomblin took the oath from Chief Justice Brent Benjamin, after the Board of Public Works did likewise.
As soon as his oath was completed, the 1st Battalion of the 201st Field Artillery of the West Virginia National Guard cut loose with a 19-gun salute, the cacophony of the big guns reverberating across the Kanawha River and filling the spacious lawn with plumes of belching smoke.
One page into his speech, Tomblin recognized Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., for his lengthy public service, calling him “truly a man of great character. Senator, I thank for you that.”
A former governor himself, Rockefeller announced only last Friday his intention to leave his Senate seat once his fifth term ends in 2014. Two other former governors sat on the front row of dignitaries with him — Bob Wise and Gaston Caperton. While the air was chilly, it was only the second inauguration in modern history when the temperature has climbed above freezing.
Soon after his address began, Tomblin led the attendees in a moment of silence, honoring the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary school carnage in Newtown, Conn.
“Such loss is heartbreaking — it’s unspeakable,” he said.
As he took the oath, first lady Joanne and son Brent stood at his side. When he walked down the red-carpeted steps on the south portico of the Capitol, bedecked in huge American flags, Tomblin prompted a loud applause to the strains of “Those West Virginia Hills.”
Tomblin said he always has strived, in his more than quarter-century of public service, to make life brighter in the state.
“And I’ve approached every decision, every challenge and every opportunity with one goal — and that is, putting West Virginia first,” he said.
The governor ran through a litany of advances during his time in office — from eliminating the sales tax on food to cutting the Other Post Employment Benefits liability in half and devising a revenue stream to clear the rest of the red ink to paying off the workers’ compensation debt.
Another milestone was the legal reform package in medical malpractice by the creation of a physicians mutual that made such coverage accessible and affordable, he said.
“Today, doctors are thriving in West Virginia,” he said.
While gains have been many and sizable, Tomblin said much remains to be done, especially in the arena of education. He made no direct mention of a recent education audit that highly criticized the system, but hours before he took the podium, a special task force organized by House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, met quietly under the dome to analyze the report and see what reforms are feasible.
Without a “world class” education system, Tomblin warned, West Virginia children cannot succeed, and the state will suffer in the long run.
And it was here he made one of three references to the drug scourge that has engulfed the entire state, saying children “must grow up in a community free from the temptations and problems associated with substance abuse.”
Tomblin reminded his audience that legislation was enacted to improve the monitoring of prescription pain killers, saying, “These new laws are shutting down pill mills and putting an end to doctor shopping.”
Moreover, he said millions are being invested in programs to free addicts from the traps of drugs.
Tomblin alluded to “great strides” in education, from a $1.7 billion investment in 132 new schools since 1989, and more than $165 million in school improvements and construction projects in all 55 counties.
On a per capita basis, West Virginia’s education spending ranks among the nation’s leaders, he said, yet problems are still glaring.
“On our most important metric — student achievement — we’re falling behind,” he said.
“It doesn’t need to be this way, and it must stop. The key to our success lies in making sure our children are prepared and ready to have a successful career in the 21st century economy. That means making sure our youngest get started on the right track with meaningful programs designed to make sure that, by the third grade, children have the key building blocks for a lifetime of learning.
“That means making sure our vocational training programs are responsive to the needs of today’s economy. That means making sure our institutions of higher learning have programs designed to prepare our teachers to teach in today’s world. That means making sure our teachers have the support they need in their classrooms.”
And, he said, it also means students are assured the required instructional time “and making sure parents become more responsible for their children and their learning.”
“It won’t happen overnight, but we must give our students a better chance at success,” he said.
Tomblin pledged no letup in the war against drug abuse in all communities.
Nor, the governor vowed, would he retreat from the “war on coal,” letting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency know he is willing to fight coal’s battles, just as he did last year in federal court with success.
“I will continue to work to improve our job climate,” he said.
“Unfortunately, for me, that means, in many instances, fighting the federal government to get off our backs and out of our way.”
Tomblin didn’t mention the EPA by name, but it was clear from the loud ovation that followed everyone knew exactly what he meant.
“It is a fight I will not concede, and I will never back down,” he declared, almost verbatim what he had said in last year’s State of the State address in throwing down the gauntlet to the federal bureaucrats.
While acknowledging the advent of Marcellus shale exploration, the Democratic governor said the state enjoys a “strong, diverse energy sector,” noting the state led America a year ago in coal exports.
“And I will continue to protect and increase the production of coal in West Virginia,” he said.
Tomblin promised to work full-time to improve West Virginia in all areas, but emphasized he can’t get the job accomplished alone.
“I need your help,” he said.
“Let us move forward this day united. I’m committed to working with the Legislature to make major improvements for our business, our schools and in our communities.”
And he appealed to a higher authority to advance the state, saying, “In this historic year, we seek the leadership of the Lord and the blessings He has so graciously bestowed upon us. God bless you, God bless America and God bless the great state of West Virginia.”
Tomblin won the right to complete the unexpired term of former Gov. Joe Manchin, now a U.S. senator, two years ago when he left to complete the final years of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, also D-W.Va. Tomblin won a full, four-year term last Nov. 6, defeating Republican rival Bill Maloney of Morgantown.
West Virginia turns 150 years old June 20, and the sesquicentennial wasn’t lost in Tomblin’s address.
“West Virginia is a special place,” Tomblin said.
“I know. There is no place on earth quite like it. I know. I’ve lived here all my life. In this sesquicentennial year, we will pause to remember how far we’ve come, how we have struggled to get from wilderness to economic progress and development, and to re-commit ourselves to ensuring a greater path for others to follow.
“Let me be the first to say, Happy Birthday, Mountain State. For we know, Mountaineers are indeed always free.”
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