By Phil Kabler
For The WVPA
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Wednesday marked the start – briefly – of the 83rd Legislature.
As occurs in years after gubernatorial elections, legislators convened to elect their presiding officers, and this year, to hear a farewell address from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, then recessed until Feb. 8, when the 60-day regular session will begin.
Addressing a joint session of the Legislature Wednesday, Tomblin said he is optimistic that efforts to diversify the state’s economy will mean a brighter future for the state, but said in the short term, “responsible action” is required to balance the state budget – which he said includes enacting $270 million in tax increases.
Tomblin proposed a one percent increase in the consumer sales tax to raise $200 million, and eliminating the sales tax exemption for telecommunications services – primarily cellphone service – to raise an additional $70 million.
Tomblin warned that without new revenue to help offset a projected $400 million shortfall in the 2017-18 state budget, the state will face dire circumstances.
“I understand these taxes will not be easy, but asking people to pay a few dollars more now is a far better choice than seeing PEIA cards not accepted by medical providers, or going back to the days when we couldn’t finance school and road improvements, or even pay the gas bill at the Governor’s Mansion,” he said in a speech in House chambers.
Tomblin’s budget plan is something of a hypothetical, since incoming Gov. Jim Justice will introduce his version of the 2017-18 state budget on Feb. 8.
During the address, Tomblin reflected not only on his 6-plus years as governor, but 42 years in public service, beginning with his election to the House of Delegates as a senior at West Virginia University in 1974.
He stressed that during that tenure, including 17 years as the longest-serving Senate president in state history, his hallmark has been fiscal responsibility.
“Throughout my 42 years in public service, fiscal responsibility has been at the heart of every project I’ve undertaken, every policy I’ve fought for, and every decision I’ve made,” Tomblin said.
Tomblin called serving as governor “the honor of my life,” and urged legislators to work together to continue to put the state first.
Earlier, the House and Senate elected their leaders for the new Legislature, with House members re-electing Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, to a second two-year term, while senators elected Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, as the new president. He succeeds Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, who gave up his Senate seat to run for governor last year.
In his acceptance speech, Carmichael – who previously was Senate majority leader – did not mince words.
“My fellow senators, our state is in trouble,” he said. “There is no way to sugarcoat it or make it less unpleasant. Our citizens have the lowest per-capita income in the America, and are some of the poorest in the country.”
Despite circumstances, Carmichael promised a bold, pro-growth agenda for the upcoming session.
“All of us agree, the citizens want, need and deserve jobs and a growing economy,” he said.
In the House, Armstead called on delegates to act with “urgency and optimism.”
“We shouldn’t allow our budgetary problems and hurtles to prevent us from seeing the opportunity to address so many other issues that need a solution,” said Armstead, who called for reform of the tax system, public education, and the judiciary.
He said the state also needs to do more to address its drug abuse epidemic, calling for substance abuse treatment and prevention programs, and tougher penalties for drug dealers.
Leading up to the one-day session, legislators also held monthly interim meetings.
Among the topics discussed was the awarding of contracts to build a $93 million 2.6-mile four-lane highway to provide access to the proposed Rock Creek Development Park in Boone and Lincoln counties, on the site of the former Hobet surface mine.
Acting state highway engineer Greg Bailey assured legislators that the access highway didn’t “jump” other pending highways projects on priority lists.
“We didn’t really move any projects out to make this happen,” Bailey said. “There’s no set project I can say, okay, we moved this out.”
“It just seems to me that the timeline on this project has been done pretty quick,” House Roads and Transportation Chairman Marty Gearhart, R-Mercer, said of the project.
First announced by Gov. Tomblin in his State of the State address last January, the design-build contract for grading, drainage and structures for the highway to the business park site was awarded in November, with a final completion date for the highway of November 2021.
In October, Tomblin announced the name for the 12,000-acre development site, and that the West Virginia National Guard’s vehicle maintenance and assembly facility will be the park’s first tenant.