Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin put his primary emphasis on overhauling West Virginia’s elementary and secondary education programs in his State of the State speech to members of the Legislature and other guests in the House of Delegate chamber here last Wednesday night—the highlight of the opening day of the regular 2013 legislative session.
“Even with all the good things happening in our schools, our student achievement is falling behind and that is not acceptable,” the governor said. “Education in West Virginia must change, and that change begins now.”
Earlier in the day, state Budget Office Director Mike McKown briefed the news media on the administration’s request to state agencies to cut spending by more than $75 million in the new 2013-2014 state budget year that begins July 1.
McKown said “each agency did something different” and noted that the most common move was to eliminate budgeted positions that are vacant. He said public education, Medicaid and the Division of Corrections are exempt from the spending cuts so other agencies that account for about one-fourth of the state’s $4.6 billion budget will absorb the brunt of these cuts.
Deputy Secretary of Revenue Mark Muchow and McKown explained the next fiscal year budget to members of the respective finance committees in the House of Delegates and State Senate later in the week. The new budget does not include any cuts for the PROMISE scholarship program, aid to schools, mine safety programs, Medicaid or the State Police. And it does not include any new taxes.
Among the new initiatives for public education, according to the governor, will be a requirement that all counties offer full-day pre-kindergarten to four-year-olds He also wants a program to assure that all children are reading at a third grade level at the end of their year in the third grade.
“If a child cannot read at grade level at the end of the third grade, bad things happen,” Tomblin said.
Among the other initiatives he outlined, the most controversial one may be his proposal to change teacher hiring practices in the public schools so that seniority is now the primary determining factor in hiring or promoting teachers. The state’s teacher unions have traditionally opposed this idea.
The other major item in the governor’s program is an effort to reduce overcrowding in the state’s prisons which will require an all-out war on the current growing problem of substance abuse that is identified with causing the soaring numbers of people sent to prison in the state.
“Substance abuse is a huge part of prison overcrowding, and the high re-offending rate intensifies the problem,” the Governor said.
Tomblin also promised to continue his clash with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and “its misguided attempts to cripple” this state’s coal industry which is such an integral part of the state. He also said he wants to see toughening natural gas pipelines safety standards in light of the pipeline explosion at nearby Sissonville.
Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said after the governor’s speech that he agrees with the governor’s plan to end substance abuse which Kessler said has reached “epidemic proportions.” Kessler said the problem is “devastating our communities.”
Members of the House of Delegates and state Senate convened the 60-day session at noon last Wednesday. House Republicans, after substantial gains in the 2010 general election, now hold 46 of the 100 seats in that chamber compared to only 35 in the 2011 and 2012 sessions.
Legislative sessions last week were mostly limited to the introduction of bills with the 100 House of Delegates members introducing a total of 470 bills the first two days while the 34 members of the state Senate introduced 163. The topics ranged from prohibiting minors from getting a tattoo (SB28 sponsored by Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh) to legislation that would allow football players to wear neck braces (HB2002 sponsored by Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion).
Among the 633 bills introduced the first two days in the House of Delegates is another attempt by Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, to double the current taxes on beer, wine and liquor to finance proposed programs to treat the growing number of West Virginia residents suffering from substance abuse. HB 2016 has a double reference to the House Health and Human Resources Committee and then to the Finance Committee and is unlikely to survive in that second committee reference.
One issue that will be postponed until after the 60-day legislative session is the governor’s efforts to find a way to finance much-needed improvements in the state highway system and other infrastructure needs. He appointed a special commission last summer to come up with a recommended plan and the final report from that commission is due May 1.
The governor is expected to call a special legislative session this summer to respond to that recommended plan.