MCT REGIONAL NEWS
By David Beard
The Dominion Post, Morgantown, W.Va.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Aug. 31--In May 1974, WVU student Earl Ray Tomblin won the Democratic primary to represent Logan County in the House of Delegates on a Tuesday, and graduated the following Saturday.
The Chapmanville native won the general election, took office in January 1975 and has been at the West Virginia Capitol ever since.
Tomblin surveyed his legislative history Tuesday afternoon for The Dominion Post Editorial Board. Elected to the Senate in 1980, after three terms in the House, he was named Senate Finance chairman in 1986.
"It was tough times in West Virginia. We were basically broke." Invoices weren't getting paid; doctors weren't accepting PEIA insurance cards; the teachers' retirement system was 90 days from an empty checkbook, Tomblin said.
Tomblin said he helped turn things around. He chaired Finance for eight years; in 1995 he became Senate president.
"I am very pleased with how we have moved our state from where it was to where it is now," he said.
The state worked out a 40-year payoff plan for the retirement system; revamped a failed workers' compensation program and has nearly paid off the debt for the old system. The state's bond rating, AA+, is the highest in 30 years. The Fiscal Year 2011 budget had a $330 million surplus and unemployment has dropped from 8.8 percent to 7.4 percent.
"We are moving West Virginia in the right direction to attract jobs and expand businesses," he said. On the horizon is cutting the corporate income tax from 8.5 percent to 6.5 percent, and eliminating the business franchise tax by 2015.
When former Gov. Joe Manchin resigned Nov. 15 to take a U.S. Senate seat, Senate President Tomblin became acting governor. Now facing four other candidates in the Oct. 4 special gubernatorial election, he hopes to remove the word "acting" from his title.
Tomblin fielded a variety of questions from the board. Here are some of his answers, arranged by topic.
Marcellus shale regulation
Tomblin admits he has taken criticism over the Legislature's leisurely pace in passing a bill -- three years and counting. He said he has done what he can administratively -- ordering the Department of Environmental Protection to establish a set of emergency environmental rules, which the secretary of state approved this week.
The co-chairs of the Joint Select Committee on Marcellus shale tell him they expect to conclude their work in September. "Whenever they can get an agreement, I'll be happy to call a special session. I think all sides need to know what the rules are."
That includes revealing drilling and fracking fluids -- an element of his executive order -- hiring more inspectors and raising permit fees from their current $600. He wouldn't specify a fee figure he likes, deferring to the Legislature.
Asked about his reluctance to call a special session to date, he said a session "without any kind of agreement is a waste of money." He doesn't want a hasty, haphazard bill that will require perpetual amending. Road maintenance
The Division of Highways (DOH) has said at different times it needs from $400 million to $700 million a year more than it now receives in order to keep state roads adequately paved.
While that won't happen soon, Tomblin sees progress. In each of the previous two years, the DOH repaved 400 miles; that jumped to 1,000 miles this year. The Legislature recently transferred $15 million from the Lottery Commission to the DOH to pave a few more miles.
"Considering where we've been, I think it's moving us in the right direction." He hopes to continue paving 1,000 miles a year.