Schools, prisons, jobs in Tomblin’s sights

CHARLESTON – Earl Ray Tomblin, elected more than three months ago to his first four-year term as West Virginia’s governor, tonight is expected to outline his proposals on education, inmate overcrowding, economic development, the drug abuse epidemic, childhood poverty and other key issues facing the Mountain State.

Tomblin’s State of the State address before the House and Senate begins at 7 p.m. at the Capitol.

Lawmakers and citizens alike are eager to hear detailed plans from Tomblin, the Democrat elevated from state Senate president to the governor’s office in late 2010 after voters sent then-Gov. Joe Manchin to the U.S. Senate to fill the vacancy created by the death of Robert C. Byrd.

Though the Legislature typically begins its 60-day session in mid-January, the 2013 term will kick into gear today. The delay is mandated by the state Constitution following every gubernatorial election in order to allow the newly elected governor time to prepare a budget.

Both Democrat and Republican party leaders for weeks have predicted that debate over how to reform the state’s public school system will dominate much of legislators’ time before the session is set to include April 13.

They also expect lawmakers to discuss ways to better ensure students’ and teachers’ safety following the Dec. 14 massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

Lawmakers also are likely to address how to ease West Virginia’s continuing rise in incarceration without building another prison, perhaps by opening the door to certain categories of felons completing their sentences under supervised release.

The governor’s work to bring high-paying jobs to West Virginia also is likely to be a focal point during tonight’s speech. Details may emerge tonight about efforts to land an ethane cracker plant.

Tomblin hinted late last week during an Associated Press Legislative Lookahead held at Marshall University’s South Charleston campus that West Virginia might still be in the running for such a facility.

Drug abuse is another likely discussion item for Tomblin during tonight’s speech, which will be broadcast on West Virginia Public Radio on 88.9 in Martinsburg as well as live online at wvpubcast.org.

“Substance abuse is a crisis,” Tomblin has said. “Drug overdoses now kill more West Virginians than car accidents. Drugs are the leading cause of accidental deaths in our state, and we have the nation’s highest rate of drug deaths. Even more alarming, 9 out of 10 of our overdose deaths involve at least one prescription drug.”

Tomblin is expected to offer up his thoughts on recommendations from a panel he formed in 2011, the Governor’s Advisory Council on Substance Abuse. The council had suggested the state pass higher taxes on tobacco and alcohol and use that money to fund new drug treatment programs, but administration officials have said Tomblin will not support tax increases.

Both Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, and John Unger, the Senate Majority Leader and the Eastern Panhandle’s state Senator since 1999, have called for the Legislature to tackle childhood poverty, which they say is behind a number of ills that contribute to the state’s long-term woes.

Unger has said lawmakers must address childhood poverty with a “holistic view” rather than by committees acting in isolation.

More than a quarter of all West Virginia children were living in poverty in 2010, according to the latest numbers available from the Children’s Defense Fund.

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