CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Monday he’ll seek improvements for West Virginians over his full four-year term, vowing in his inaugural address to protect coal and fight the federal government “to get off our backs and leave us alone.”
Tomblin spoke for 18 minutes Monday after being sworn in on the south steps of the state Capitol. His wife of 32 years, Joanne, and their son, Brent, held the Bible while the 60-year-old Democrat took his oath from chief state Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin.
While the theme of the inauguration was “West Virginia First,” Tomblin didn’t introduce any new ideas or initiatives. He spoke only in general terms about ensuring a better quality of life and continuing a long-standing commitment to fiscal responsibility.
“I reaffirm my commitment to you today that I will continue to spend every working minute to make West Virginia a better place,” he said.
Tomblin, the state’s longest-serving Senate president, used his speech to mention accomplishments that included the state’s balanced budget and solid rainy day fund. He touted tax cuts, too, including the state food tax that is being eliminated next July.
He also noted that the state is less than four years away from paying off its once-massive workers’ compensation system debt, which he called “an albatross around our economic neck.”
In protecting West Virginia jobs, “unfortunately for me, that means in many instances fighting the federal government to get off our backs and leave us alone,” Tomblin said, drawing applause. “But this is a fight that I will not concede and I will never back down.”
West Virginia is the nation’s second-largest provider of coal and the nation’s largest exporter, although thousands of coal industry jobs have been lost in Appalachia to an economic slowdown, competition from cheap natural gas, and tougher federal air and water pollution regulations.
Tomblin has repeatedly criticized President Barack Obama’s approach to coal industry regulation. He has continued to pursue a federal lawsuit filed against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by his predecessor, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin. The EPA has repeatedly sparred with the mining industry over Clean Water Act-related permits, particularly for mountaintop removal mining operations.
Tomblin vowed to pursue improvements in education and spoke about the passage of laws aimed at protecting families, including banning texting while driving, monitoring prescription drug use and enhancing miners’ safety.
“We’ll put our families and our communities first. And, I can promise you one thing — we will continue putting them first for the next four years,” he said.
Many of those attending Monday’s ceremony under an overcast sky were bundled up with temperatures around 40.
Teresa Clevenger of Iaeger huddled in a fleece blanket embroidered with the governor’s name and date as she and husband Sherman waited to see their 17-year-old son escort new Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.
A senior at River View High, Joshua Clevenger is also in the Governor’s Honor Academy. And from his dad’s point of view, he was in exactly the right place Monday.
“We call him a natural-born politician. He likes shaking hands and rubbing elbows,” Sherman Clevenger said.
Amanda Davis of Lenore and four relatives arrived early for front-row seats.
Davis’ 9-year-old daughter, Olivia Osborne, performing with the Appalachian Children’s Chorus, so she came to watch an inaugural for the first time.
“I’ve never been, so I am looking for a sense of pride in our state,” she said.
A part-time gas station cashier married to a laid-off coal truck driver, Davis also hoped to hear Tomblin talk about how to help with her family’s biggest need — health care.
“They need to make it more affordable and there needs to be less red tape to getting help,” she said. “That’s our biggest need. That and for the coal business to pick up.”
A public reception followed at the nearby Culture Center, where the Tomblins stood in a reception line greeting well-wishers while some nibbled state-shaped cookies with blue and gold sprinkles. The inaugural ball for 2,000 people, only 500 of them members of the public, was scheduled for Monday night at the Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences.