Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, members of the Legislature, members of the Board of Public Works, justices of the Supreme Court of Appeals, members of Congress, distinguished guests, and my fellow West Virginians.
Forty years ago on a night much like tonight, I joined my fellow Legislators in this beautiful chamber as a young man and a recent college graduate just elected to the House of Delegates and wondered what on earth I had gotten myself into.
Armed with little more than a fresh perspective and a passion to make my home state the best it could be, I was eager to take on the challenges I knew we faced as a state.
On my first trip to the supply room to pick up my pens, papers and folders, I was stopped by the House clerk who wanted to know who the supplies were for. I said they were for me. And he responded, well, who are you? I said, I’m the new delegate from Logan County.
I imagine my emotions and expectations were not unlike our state’s and our nation’s youngest lawmaker, Saira Blair, who finds herself in this Chamber as a member of the majority, working with a governor of the opposite party, just as I did 40 years ago.
As many of you may know, that governor was Arch Moore. Tonight, our thoughts and prayers continue to be with Senator Capito, and her family, as they mourn his passing.
As Governor Moore once welcomed me, tonight I welcome Delegate Blair, and all of the new faces in this Chamber. I’m confident we all share the same goal – the goal of putting West Virginia first and making it the greatest place it can be.
Serving our state and her people comes with great responsibility. We must work together, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as West Virginians united for the common good. This is West Virginia, not Washington, and we work together to meet the challenges we face as a state.
Through the years, I’m proud of the great progress we have made, together. We have improved our business climate, launched meaningful reforms to our education system, addressed our long-term liabilities, and cut taxes for working families and small businesses.
Just two weeks ago, we eliminated our state’s business franchise tax, not only encouraging employers to continue to invest in our state, but eliminating extra paperwork that made it more difficult to do business here.
Eliminating the business franchise tax is just one of the recent steps we’ve taken to responsibly reduce taxes for employers. These steps continue to encourage investments in West Virginia jobs.
But as I speak to the newest members of this Legislature, and I know we have more than a few of those, I’m sure you are aware this is not the only or the last hurdle we face to improve our state’s business climate.
Nearly four decades ago, our state was in danger of having the heat turned off in the Governor’s Mansion because we couldn’t pay our bills. We owed billions of dollars in unfunded pension liabilities. Our credit rating was quickly approaching junk bond status, our residents waited months to receive their tax refunds, and doctors weren’t being paid for treating patients covered by PEIA.
While we can agree there are challenges that still lay ahead, the state of our state is much different, much BETTER, than before.
We have one of the strongest Rainy Day Funds in the country. We are credited for being one of the most fiscally responsible states in the nation. Our bond ratings were recently reaffirmed – a move that saves taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars when building schools, roads and making long-term investments to improve our infrastructure. We accomplished these things, together.
We’ve reformed our workers’ compensation system so businesses operating here pay more reasonable insurance rates and hardworking West Virginians receive the benefits they deserve in a timely manner. This year, businesses in West Virginia saw a reduction in workers’ compensation premiums for the tenth straight year, a total of more than 280 million dollars in savings since 2005.
We’ve worked together to make tough decisions, and next year, we will pay off the remaining debt from the old workers’ comp fund. We have come too far and worked too hard to go back on the commitments we made several years ago. We accomplished these things, together.
In the early 2000s, doctors were threatening to leave the state because of slow payments and unreasonable medical malpractice insurance premiums. We reformed our legal system and created the West Virginia Mutual Insurance Company, which serves as a model for states across the country, providing physicians with good coverage at reasonable rates. We accomplished these things, together.
And just three years ago, we rolled up our sleeves to tackle our state’s OPEB debt. While other states were only talking about eliminating debt related to other post-employment benefits, we took bold action. We were the first state in the country to address the concerns of local officials who were terrified of bankruptcy, and we found a way to pay it down in a fiscally responsible manner.
Because of these steps, our state’s $5 billion OPEB debt will be paid off without any tax increases.
We accomplished these things, together.
Responsible actions like workers’ compensation reform, medical malpractice reform and gradual reductions in our business and consumer taxes, help West Virginia employers, protect our residents and are critical to our continued economic growth.
We have worked together to make significant changes to improve our state’s legal system, and I resent those who irresponsibly label us a judicial hellhole. Unreasonable and irrational labels drummed up by out-of-state interests do not help our efforts to engage potential investors and strengthen our economy.
There is always more work to be done, and together we can consider reasonable, responsible reforms to our legal system.
We’ve worked hard to create an environment that allows us to compete for new and expanding businesses – projects like Diamond Electric which recently relocated its North American headquarters to Putnam County, American Woodmark which announced a $30 million expansion in Hardy County, and Sogefi in Wayne County which has invested tens of millions of dollars in our state, employing hundreds of West Virginians.
We look forward to adding Project ASCENT, the proposed multi-billion dollar cracker in Wood County, to this impressive and growing list.
This November, I traveled to Brazil to meet with senior officials from Odebrecht and Braskem to review their continued progress and chart our next steps moving forward. This type of project will serve as an anchor for new value-added industries and chemical hubs that will be part of a manufacturing renaissance in America.
Company officials are pleased with the progress they have made over the past year and the tremendous welcome they’ve received from the number of West Virginians who have touched this project in one way or another. Our recent mission allowed us to demonstrate our firm commitment to bring this facility to the Mountain State. Tonight, I am more confident than ever this investment will usher in an era of unprecedented growth for our entire region.
In 2011, we were the first state to pass comprehensive legislation regulating the drilling of Marcellus Shale. Since then, we’ve taken significant steps to ensure we remain at the center of the Marcellus and Utica shale boom.
Companies are investing billions of dollars in our state to support the production, processing and transportation of natural gas and creating a number of new opportunities to develop these rich deposits. This October, Southwestern Energy invested more than $5 billion in West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania to acquire Marcellus and Utica shale properties. This investment is one of the largest of its kind, not only in our state, but across the country.
Tonight, I’d like to welcome home West Virginia native and the new general manager of Southwestern Energy’s West Virginia operations, Derek Cutright and Senior Vice President of Southwestern’s West Virginia division, Paul Geiger.
Derek and Paul, please stand so we may welcome you and thank you for Southwestern’s significant investment in the Mountain State.
Tens of thousands of our residents are already benefiting from these developments, and I’m committed to ensuring our state continues to capitalize on this abundant natural resource and the opportunities it brings. With this in mind, I’ve directed the Department of Revenue to launch a comprehensive review of our state’s public lands to identify opportunities where West Virginia can take advantage of this energy revolution.
We have the potential to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in bonus and royalty payments, monies that can be invested to improve our state parks, support tourism initiatives across the state and finance a number of other worthy endeavors to strengthen job creation.
For generations, West Virginia has been one of our nation’s leading energy producing states. As we continue to explore opportunities to diversify our state’s energy portfolio, we must ensure the safety of hardworking West Virginians at drilling sites, production facilities and pipelines across the state. That’s why I am requesting a study to determine how we can best protect workers at natural gas operations. We must ensure our workers have the proper training and skills to do their jobs in the most effective way possible and return home safely.
Workforce safety must be the expectation for businesses operating in West Virginia, not an afterthought.
Economic investments, as well as those we are making to improve our infrastructure, are important to all of us, but they come at a cost.
Our state’s highways and bridges are critical to our continued economic growth. This year, the Division of Highways spent an additional $48 million on resurfacing projects and bridge work compared to what was spent in 2013. We are making progress, but we must find ways to do more.
With the help of legislation we passed together, our Division of Highways is now able to use more innovative financing options to build and maintain our roads and bridges. And tonight, I’ve directed the Division of Highways to include the completion of U.S. 35 as part of its six year plan.
In recent years, inaction at the federal level has put construction at a standstill and new highway projects have been difficult to complete. I will continue to work with our Congressional delegation to identify a stable federal funding source for our much-needed road improvements.
When highway funding is hard to come by, eliminating more than $85 million in dedicated revenues to maintain our state’s highways is irresponsible. This year, 84 percent of all tolls collected on the West Virginia Turnpike were collected from out-of-state drivers and commercial vehicles.
Instead of eliminating tolls, we need to work together to identify alternative ways to minimize the impact on our residents who travel the Turnpike each and every day.
We’ve created a business climate where companies are encouraged to innovate, expand and create new jobs. Companies across the country and around the world are noticing the changes we have made.
When I became governor four years ago, I made a promise that I would go anywhere and sit down with anyone to bring jobs to the Mountain State. When investors knock on the door of our state’s Development Office, we ask, “How can we help?” These strong personal relationships are critical for our state and our economy.
When companies investing here have unmet needs, we take action, and we must do the same thing for small business owners who already call our state home.
West Virginians make great products, and we need to make sure entrepreneurs like Isabella Yosuico can continue to succeed. Soon after Isabella’s second son, Isaac, was born, she and her husband, Ray, were told by doctors that he would have low muscle tone and weakness common to children with Down’s syndrome.
Like any mom wanting to help, Isabella sought a solution.
She took a scrap of cloth, sand from her boys’ sandbox and created a tiny pair of weights to put on Isaac’s wrists and ankles to help him develop muscle strength. When Isaac’s physical therapist saw them, she encouraged Isabella to consider making them for other children with similar obstacles. In May, Isabella launched MightyTykes as part of the 2014 Abilities EXPO in New York City.
Tonight, we celebrate the spirit of the Yosuico family. Isabella, Isaac, Pierce and Ray, please stand so we may recognize you and celebrate your family’s achievements.
We must encourage the same innovation we ask of all of those investing in our state and allow our state’s entrepreneurs to put their skills to work without the burden of unnecessary state restrictions.
That’s why tonight I am proposing legislation to give our craft brewers increased opportunities to succeed as part of our state’s growing craft beer industry. Together, we can continue to show those across the country, around the world and here at home that West Virginia is the right place to make an investment and the Mountain State is a great place to do business.
Our continued economic growth and the enormous potential that lies ahead place even more urgency on developing a skilled workforce.
Recent studies show West Virginia will generate 30,000 new jobs each year through 2018 and nearly 60 percent of these jobs will require at least a two-year degree. These are good paying jobs in the manufacturing, construction and natural gas industries as well as healthcare and education.
Since 2007, West Virginia’s community and technical colleges have developed 133 new programs specifically tailored toward workforce development and training. Many of these partnerships, like the Appalachian Petroleum Program Training Center, were created to strengthen our state’s growing manufacturing, chemical and natural gas sectors.
This center, a joint partnership between Pierpont and West Virginia Northern Community College, is one of only 14 programs of its kind in the country. It brings together industry representatives and the academic community to equip West Virginians with the skills they need to be part of these growing industries.
Recent investors have identified a critical need for instrumentation technology programs to support new and growing industries across the state. Blue Ridge and BridgeValley Community and Technical Colleges answered their call with specialized programs supported by private sector companies eager to hire West Virginia workers.
Companies like Toyota, Gestamp, NGK and Dow Chemical recognize the progress we’ve made and are working with us to train West Virginia’s workforce for the jobs of today and tomorrow.
The number of students now earning certificate degrees and two-year associate degrees has increased by 57 percent. That’s an accomplishment we all can be proud of.
Preparing our future workforce doesn’t start with our community and technical colleges. Across the state, we are working with middle school and high school students to share the opportunities that await them after graduation.
Over the past several months, I’ve traveled to a number of schools to meet our students and introduce a new education initiative. It’s called My State, My Life, and it’s designed to inspire and encourage our students to embrace their bright future here in the Mountain State. The West Virginia of today is not the same place it was decades ago. We are ushering in an era of change that will provide our students with opportunities for a great life here at home.
In classrooms from Hancock to McDowell, Wayne to Berkeley counties, there are thousands of young bright minds with untapped potential. There are endless possibilities for our students to succeed, and it doesn’t matter which training or career path they choose as long as they choose one.
As we work to develop these programs, we understand we must expand our vision to prepare more than just the future members of our workforce.
We must also support existing workers, especially our state’s hardworking coal miners. I know times are tough, but let me be clear, I will never stop fighting against federal regulations that harm our state’s energy industry and devastate our miners, their families and our communities.
Last month, we filed comments related to the EPA’s carbon pollution emission guidelines and urged the EPA to reconsider its proposed plan. Federal bureaucrats must understand the impact these new rules will have on families and communities here and across the country. We must work together to develop reasonable, achievable goals that balance the environmental protection we all support with the economic growth we must maintain.
While we remain hopeful the EPA will consider the effects regulations are already having on our economy, we continue to offer programs to provide coal miners and their families with the critical training they need to explore a different career path, if that’s a choice they wish to make.
BridgeValley, New River and Southern West Virginia Community and Technical Colleges all offer programs to re-train hardworking miners and their families with the skills they need to succeed. These accelerated training programs are based on fundamental skills that are valuable no matter what high demand field our miners choose, even if they are able to find re-employment underground.
No matter how West Virginians have been affected by the downturn in our state’s energy sector, re-training and job assistance are available. Over the past four years, Workforce West Virginia has invested more than 48 million dollars in state and federal funds to retrain displaced workers and their families.
Today, we continue to prepare these workers for jobs in high-demand fields across the state like nursing, education, welding and related industries.
As West Virginia’s military men and women return from serving around the world, we stand together to welcome them home with open arms. We are proud of our state’s legacy of serving our country, and we must continue to honor them every chance we get. These men and women aren’t just dedicated members of our military, they are also important members of our communities. When they return home, we owe it to them to provide the training they need to succeed.
In 2009, my friend and one of our state’s Silver Star recipients, James McCormick, came up with an idea to help veterans find transitional job training and meaningful work here at home. Last year, the Legislature passed a bi-partisan bill to establish the Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture Program which helps our state’s veterans provide fresh produce for their families and develop small working farms across the state.
James has dedicated his time and talents to helping our veterans return to civilian life and transition to careers as farmers and livestock managers. James, please stand so we may thank you for your service and for your hard work on behalf of our state’s veterans.
As a former teacher, father and the husband of a college president, I understand the importance of a good education. As Governor, I recognize improving educational programs and increasing opportunities for our kids, and our teachers, is fundamental to our state’s continued growth and economic success.
Over the past several years, we’ve made changes in our classrooms to put our kids on the right track to a bright future.
From touring Edgewood Elementary School on Charleston’s West Side to celebrating the newly-renovated Harpers Ferry Middle School in the Eastern Panhandle, I’ve had the opportunity to see firsthand changes we’re making to help our students succeed. We are laying the groundwork to support our communities and develop future leaders and innovators of the next generation.
As we compete in today’s global economy, we must start with our middle school and high school students by providing them with the high-tech skills they need. In 2013, business and industry in West Virginia identified a critical need for workers with strong math, technical, computer and mechanical skills.
That’s why this year I’ve set aside funding to establish a STEM network to review current STEM-related education initiatives and refine and expand local programs to better serve our students. As we increase and improve STEM-education opportunities, there will be a need for more certified chemistry, robotics and advanced math teachers in our classrooms.
We must ensure our students are being taught by great teachers including those who may not have a traditional education degree.
This year, I will introduce legislation to expand opportunities for skilled West Virginians who have a passion for teaching but may not have a teaching background. We need to find ways to streamline the process and encourage those who have a passion to teach so they can share their knowledge with our kids. We must give local school systems better flexibility to train and hire subject-matter experts to fill long-term vacancies in critical subject areas.
Each year, our teachers gather in schools and classrooms across the state with a shared vision to inspire our students and encourage a lifetime of learning.
Tonight, I am honored to introduce our 2015 Toyota Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield Teacher of the Year, Gail Adams. Inspiration can come from a place we least expect. Sometimes it comes from teaching a Jazzercise class.
While leading each class, Gail laughed as she corrected the grammar of the song lyrics that played.
And after months of joking about becoming an English teacher, she finally felt the spark that awakened a passion for teaching. She followed her heart, enrolled in college and four years later, she earned her teaching degree.
Today, Gail is not only teaching Advanced English to her students at Wheeling Park High School, but she is answering the tough questions she once had as a high school senior. Instead of just reading modern literature and studying the classics, Gail’s students are also learning about banking, financing a college education and finding a rewarding career.
She makes things work, makes things better and makes teaching, and learning, special.
Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming our 2015 Teacher of the Year, Gail Adams.
We are fortunate to have businesses that understand the value of a good education here in West Virginia. At this time, I’d also like to recognize two individuals who deserve our thanks for their continued support of the Teacher of the Year program.
Fred Early, president of Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Millie Marshall, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing of West Virginia please stand so we may thank you for your continued commitment to our state’s teachers.
A strong workforce is a drug-free workforce. Substance abuse is a heartbreaking problem facing families across West Virginia each and every day.
With the help of the Governor’s Council on Substance Abuse, we’ve taken bold action to stop the production of meth and increase practice standards for pain clinics to ensure our residents are using prescription drugs responsibly.
Over the past two years, we’ve worked together to draft legislation and approve new rules to regulate pain management clinics across the state. Since July, the Department of Health and Human Resources has inspected seven pain clinics. Three of those have been ordered to close and denied licensure for violation of these new standards.
Our residents must have access to pain management treatment options but not at the expense of irresponsible prescription practices.
I’m proud of the steps we have taken to curb this epidemic, but we must do more. As we continue our efforts to address the abuse of prescription medications, we must also be prepared to combat the increased availability of illegal street drugs. Today, heroin use is on the rise, and we must stop this lethal drug from ruining the lives of our citizens.
This session, I will introduce legislation to help our state’s emergency responders and families facing drug abuse save the lives of those who abuse heroin. Naloxone is critical to countering the effects of a heroin overdose. By expanding access to this life-saving drug, we can prevent overdose deaths and give those suffering from substance abuse the opportunity to seek help, overcome their addiction and return to their families, work places and communities.
The communities we live in are more than just places where we put down roots, start a new business or watch our children grow. They are places we call home, and they must be places where we feel safe.
In May, we announced a significant step toward reducing prison overcrowding and drug abuse. Since then, we’ve reinvested nearly $2.5 million in community-based substance abuse treatment and recovery services across the state.
Tonight, I’m pleased to announce the investment of an additional $660 thousand to expand treatment options across the state including new intensive outpatient services in the Northern and Eastern Panhandles.
In 2013, we worked together to embrace the Justice Reinvestment Act and developed a research-based plan to rehabilitate those in our justice system. These reforms maximize our corrections dollars and lower the financial burden on our overextended prison system while protecting our state’s finances.
Through our landmark justice reinvestment efforts, we’ve learned data-driven programs do work. Most of our efforts have focused on addressing our adult corrections system, but we also must do everything we can to meet the needs of our youth.
We must do more to keep our kids out of the courtroom and in the classroom.
Between 1997 and 2011, West Virginia saw the largest percentage increase in youth confinements of any state in the country. This June, with bipartisan support from every level of our three branches of government, we embarked on a comprehensive review of our juvenile justice system.
This task force, including law enforcement, prosecutors, public defenders, faith-based representatives and West Virginia families, looked at evidence-based programs and identified best practices that make the most sense for West Virginia. We must take action to create a smarter, more effective system for our children.
Tonight, I’m announcing legislation to reform our state’s juvenile justice system. It will establish truancy diversion specialists in all 55 counties and increase the use of community-based services to help families mend and get our kids back on track. We will also increase the number of youth reporting centers across the state to produce better outcomes for children and their families by getting them the help they need.
At a cost of $4.5 million, this legislation is projected to reduce the number of DHHR residential placements and Division of Juvenile Services commitments by at least 40 percent over the next 5 years and will save taxpayers $59 million.
We are also strengthening the West Virginia National Guard’s incredibly successful Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy. Since the Academy was established in 1993, nearly 3,000 teens have graduated and gone on to be positive influences in their communities. This December, 131 cadets graduated from the Academy.
Of the new graduates, 16 percent are pursuing their college degree with the help of PROMISE scholarships, 26 percent are receiving training at one of our state’s vocational schools, 24 percent have chosen military careers and the rest have successfully completed training programs to enter our workforce.
The ChalleNGe Academy is making a difference in the lives of at-risk kids across the state. And tonight, we welcome two graduates whose experiences will inspire other young West Virginians to follow their lead.
After graduating from the Academy in 1999, Michael Ayersman joined the United States Army. After serving his country as a combat engineer and bomb technician, Michael returned home to serve his fellow West Virginians as a law enforcement officer. In 2013, he returned to the Academy – this time as a squad leader mentoring new cadets.
Just last month, Ryan Bass stood with his fellow cadets as a new graduate and member of the 43rd Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy class. Ryan plans to join the West Virginia National Guard and continue his education.
Michael and Ryan, please stand so we may congratulate you on your achievements.
As we expand opportunities for our kids to succeed, child welfare reforms are critical to keeping our children safe at home. With this in mind, I’ve directed the Department of Health and Human Resources to work together with Workforce West Virginia to help parents find stable employment to support their families.
We can make a difference in the lives of our state’s children, and together, we can accomplish these life-changing and meaningful reforms.
This legislative session, I challenge those of us gathered in this chamber and West Virginians across the state to come together. We must set aside our political differences, and stand united, as West Virginians for the greater good.
Tonight, I’m proud to welcome two West Virginia law enforcement heroes who personify what it means to put the welfare of others above themselves.
Two weeks ago, Lewisburg Police Lieutenant Jeromy Dove, Corporal Mike Arbaugh and Patrolman Nicholas Sams responded to what seemed to be a routine traffic stop. As they approached the stopped vehicle, Lieutenant Dove and Patrolman Sams were shot in the line of duty.
Across the state, dedicated officers like Lieutenant Dove and Patrolman Sams, answer the call to protect and serve, putting the safety and wellbeing of their fellow West Virginians first. This week, Lieutenant Dove, Corporal Arbaugh and Patrolman Sams put on their uniforms and returned to work.
Lieutenant Dove and Patrolman Sams, please stand so we may thank you for your service and thank you for the commitment you – and West Virginia’s law enforcement community – demonstrate each and every day.
Just as these two brothers in blue have taught us, we all are part of something much bigger. Among the mountains we call home, we are charting a new path – one built on collaboration and mutual respect – and one that places our state and her people, first.
I’m proud of the work we’ve done. I’m proud of the progress we’ve made and I’m confident that we can continue to move West Virginia forward, together.
Tonight, we are more than just Democrats and Republicans. We are, and will forever be, West Virginians.
God bless you, God bless your families and God bless the state we call home.