By LACIE PIERSON
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia’s 35th governor used his last address to the citizens of West Virginia Wednesday to end his 42-year-long career in state government on notes of commonality and reflection while spending portions of his speech talking about balancing the state’s budget and fighting substance abuse.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, 64, addressed the full Legislature along with West Virginia’s Board of Public Works and West Virginia Supreme Court inside the West Virginia House of Delegates chamber five days before Democrat Jim Justice will be sworn in as the Mountain State’s 36th governor.
Tomblin, who ends his tenure as governor after meeting the state’s two-term limit, began his speech by saying it was the greatest honor and reward of his life to serve the people of West Virginia.
Tomblin began the latest swing in legislators’ fight for a balanced budget by proposing a budget for Fiscal Year 2018 that would include a 1 percent increase in the state’s sales consumer tax and the elimination of the current sales tax exemption on telecommunications services.
Tomblin said the sales tax increase would add $200 million in revenue annually.
“I urge you to consider these responsible actions to balance the budget until the brighter economic picture that we all expect comes into focus,” Tomblin said.
Fiscal Year 2018 will begin July 1, 2017, and already West Virginia Secretary of Revenue Bob Kiss has estimated legislators will be responsible for patching an estimated $400 million hole when they convene this year.
Legislators have cut more than $600 million from the state’s budget in the past five years as state revenue dwindles due to downturns in the coal industry. On Wednesday, Tomblin said he didn’t expect the coal industry to rebound to the levels of profit that it once had.
Tomblin also warned legislators to balance the budget without taking money from the Rainy Day Fund or cutting services “to the point where we cannot care for our people or educate our students.”
Del. Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, said he agreed that cuts were needed, but legislators should balance financial efficiency goals with realistic expectations.
“We do have to be efficient,” Hornbuckle said. “Coming from a financial background, we have to be efficient without funds, as long as you have no, or minimal, job loss, but we also have to be realists and create other streams of revenue.”
One way Tomblin talked about caring for people was by highlighting some of the progress made in how West Virginia residents are responding to substance abuse issues throughout the state.
Although it took place later in his speech, Tomblin spent the longest amount of time talking about fighting substance abuse in West Virginia, talking about the creation of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Substance Abuse in 2011.
He called substance abuse problems in the state “one of the most trying epidemics I believe the Mountain State has ever faced.”
Tomblin talked about how the state has fewer meth labs and more access to recovery service and community-based treatment options, saying there are 188 crisis detox beds in residential treatment facilities in the state. He also said there are 118 detox beds for youth and postpartum treatmen
The state’s first 24-hour substance abuse call line, 844-HELP-FOR-WV, received nearly 8,500 calls since it launched in September 2015, and Tomblin said he was deeply proud of that program.
More than 900 people suffered overdoses in Cabell County in 2016, and in 2015, there were 944 overdoses in Cabell County, with 70 resulting in death.
“With economic changes, job losses and families struggling, we have to seize every opportunity before us to become stronger as individuals and as a state,” Tomblin said.
In closing his speech, Tomblin tried to promote unity among legislators as they prepare to move forward without his direct input for the first time in more than four decades.
“I believe the thing that compelled each of us to public service is our love for West Virginia,” Tomblin said. “And that is the very thing that should compel us to work together. …
“It has been the honor of my life to be your governor – to be West Virginia’s governor. Joanne and I thank the people of West Virginia for your abiding trust, counsel and support. And we look forward – with the greatest hope and optimism – to an even stronger West Virginia.”
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