CHARLESTON - Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin vowed to put "West Virginia first" while protecting the coal industry and advancing education reform during his inaugural address Monday on the state capitol's south portico steps.
The 60-year-old Logan County Democrat took the oath of office for his only full four-year term from West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent D. Benjamin during a nearly two-hour long ceremony attended by both houses of the state Legislature and about 250 onlookers.
In the nearly 20-minute speech, Tomblin rattled off a litany of his accomplishments, including fixing the state's ailing pension system and reforming and stabilizing the workers compensation system, before turning attention to his key initiatives and the future of the Mountain State.
I SWEAR — Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin takes the oath of office Monday in Charleston, while his son, Brent, at right, looks on. -- Anthony Gaynor
"During my years in public service, I've worked hard to create a brighter future for West Virginia, and I've approached every decision, every challenge and every opportunity with one goal - and that is putting West Virginia first," Tomblin said.
"Our journey to transform this state began over 25 years ago. The road we have traveled has not always been easy. But, we have done it the right way - working together with business, labor, Republican and Democrat to solve our problems."
Tomblin, the longest-serving Senate president in state history, directed his strongest comments of the day at education reform.
"Since 1989, we have spent over $1.7 billion to construct 132 news schools. In just the past two years, we've dedicated a total of more than $165 million to school improvements and construction projects taking place in all 55 counties," Tomblin said.
"Now, make no mistake, I remain concerned about our future. All of our hard work will be for nothing if jobs are not available and if our children are not prepared to thrive and be productive citizens in our workforce.
"We have hard working teachers. Per capita, our education funding ranks among the nation's best. But on our most important metric - student achievement - we're falling behind. It doesn't need to be this way, and it must stop."
Tomblin said that future success lies in the preparation of not only each and every student, but in the programs and institutions that drive the education system.
"The key to our success lies in making sure our children are prepared and ready to have a successful career in the 21st century economy," Tomblin said. "That means focusing to ensure our youngest get started on the right track, with meaningful programs designed to make sure that, by third grade, children have the key building blocks for a lifetime of learning. That means making sure vocational training programs are responsive to the needs of today's economy. That means making sure our institutions of higher learning have programs designed to prepare our teachers to teach in today's world."
Tomblin cited guaranteed and increased instructional time, school systems having the ability and leeway to be more innovative and increased parental involvement as keys to success.
The governor also addressed increased economic growth in light of the recent downturn in the economy. He touted the elimination of the state's food tax - beginning July 1 - which will put "money back in the pockets of hard working West Virginians."
"We've cut taxes for our businesses, too," Tomblin said. "The Mountain State has not seen a general tax increase in the past 20 years. We are eliminating our business franchise tax, and we continue to cut our corporate net income tax."
"Because our financial house is in order we can start looking toward the future," Tomblin added. "We have created thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars in new investments in the past two years."
Other top West Virginia officials taking the oath of office Monday included Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, State Auditor Glen B. Gainer III, State Treasurer John D. Purdue and West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Justices Robin Davis and Allen Laughry II.
In addition, Patrick Morrisey, who unseated longtime Attorney General Darrell McGraw in November, took the oath as well as Walt Helmick, who takes over at the Agriculture Department for Gus R. Douglass. Douglass, who served in that post for 44 years, was the longest serving commissioner of agriculture in the country's history.
Several members of the state's U.S. Congressional delegation attended the inauguration, including U.S. Reps. Shelley Moore Capito, R-Charleston, Nick Joe Rahall II, D-Beckley, and David McKinley, R-Wheeling. U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and former governors Gaston Caperton and Bob Wise also attended.
"Gov. Tomblin has always served the people of West Virginia with strong leadership and a steady hand," Rockefeller, who announced his decision to not seek another term in the U.S. Senate last week, said. "As governor, he has been squarely focused on moving our state forward. A strong ambassador for West Virginia, he has worked to bring new, good-paying jobs home. That work has produced results with the Macy's facility in the Eastern Panhandle, Gestamp in South Charleston and expansions at companies across our state."
Tomblin won't be resting on his laurels as state officials strive to continue to build upon the Mountain State's fiscal soundness when the Legislative session opens Feb. 13.
"The solid foundation we have built for our state has given us the opportunity to reach even greater heights in the four years ahead. But I need your help," Tomblin said. "Let us move forward this day united. I'm committed to working with the Legislature to make major improvements for our businesses, our schools and our communities."
"We made real changes - and we have made them by working together, by reaching across the street, across the state and across party lines. We've put our families and our communities first. And, I can tell you one thing - we will continue putting them first for the next four years."
(Burdette can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)