CHARLESTON, West Virginia — West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin used his last State of the State address Wednesday to call for reinvestment in ravaged coal communities and beckon Republican lawmakers to consider election-year tax increases amid dire budget straits.
In Wednesday's speech, the Democrat admitted that "even the most optimistic among us realize it is unlikely coal will ever reach production levels of the past."
He said the state wants to develop the largest industrial site in West Virginia history on a former surface mine in Boone and Lincoln counties, one large enough to fit every major economic development project in recent state history. The state is also seeking $140 million in federal money to help rebuild communities in six southern coalfield counties.
"For generations, our miners unearthed the coal used to produce the low-cost energy that fueled this country's Industrial Revolution — one that remains unmatched anywhere in the world," Tomblin said. "This nation owes these West Virginians a debt of gratitude and we are ready to cash in on that substantial IOU."
He mentioned compliance with the Clean Power Plan, including options like reforestation and new boilers at power plants. The federal regulation limiting carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants has faced stark opposition from coal state politicians, including Tomblin, and Republicans in general.
Diminishing tax revenue from unearthing coal is one big reason why the budget is in turmoil. West Virginia faces a $381 million budget gap this year and a $466 million gap in 2017, largely because coal and natural gas severance tax cash is dwindling. A glut of natural gas has kept prices low.
Tomblin called for raising the tax on cigarettes by 45 cents to $1 and raising taxes on other tobacco products, including snuff and e-cigarettes. He also called for a tax on phone services, including land lines and cellphones, audio calls and data usage.
House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, responded by saying his members are reluctant to tax hikes.
"This approach simply will not solve the long-term problem," Armstead said. "Across our state, families are making tough decisions to make ends meet. Just as they have been forced to tighten their belts, so should we."
Tomblin released tidbits of economic development projects and his final legislative agenda as governor.
He said polymer additive company Addivant plans at least a $12 million additional investment in the state, maintaining 100 existing jobs with additional positions possible.
He touched on the state's substance abuse epidemic, saying all West Virginians should have access to the life-saving opioid overdose medication, Narcan, without a prescription.
Tomblin was appointed acting governor in 2010. He won a 2011 special election and was re-elected in 2012. He is reaching a two-consecutive term limit.