MARTINSBURG,W.Va. — Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who was in the Eastern Panhandle Wednesday to sign a landmark funding bill to protect the Chesapeake Bay, painted a rosy state financial picture to a large lunch crowd in Shepherdstown and toured the new American Public University headquarters building in Charles Town.
It was a busy day for Tomblin, a Democratic incumbent who hopes to stay in the governor's mansion for two more years to fill out the term of former Gov. Joe Manchin, who resigned to take the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd's seat.
Tomblin faces a slew of competitors seeking to run the state. He is among six Democrats running in the May 14 primary. Nine Republicans are running in that party's primary in addition to two Mountain Party candidates.
The bill Tomblin signed at the Berkeley County Public Service District offices Wednesday calls for an estimated $224 million to upgrade wastewater plants in eight Eastern West Virginia jurisdictions, including Morgan, Berkeley and Jefferson counties.
It calls for $6 million a year for the next 30 years to help the jurisdictions meet tough new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules aimed at cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.
The money does not go directly to pay for the 13 targeted public wastewater systems in the eight-county Chesapeake Bay watershed to be upgraded or replaced.
Instead, it will help the local public service districts pay off construction bonds over 30 years, according to state Sen. Herb Snyder, who, along with State Sen. John Unger, both D-Berkeley/Jefferson, sponsored the bill.
Local ratepayers still will foot some of the total cost, but not as much, Snyder said.
No tax dollars are involved, he said. The money comes from excess video-lottery money and will be allocated to the West Virginia Infrastructure & Jobs Development Council, Snyder said.
"This was a huge issue to get legislators from 55 counties to commit state money for eight counties," Snyder said.
Tomblin praised Snyder for his two years of hard work and determination in getting the bill passed.
"He did all the legwork," the governor said of Snyder. Meeting the new EPA standards was a challenge facing the Eastern Panhandle, "but now West Virginia can do its part to clean up Chesapeake Bay," he said.
A small share of the $6 million annual appropriation will pay for wastewater system improvements in the Greenbrier watershed.
Tomblin also met with about 50 area business and government leaders during a luncheon in the Bavarian Inn. He spoke of West Virginia's enviable position of having a budget in the black while dozens of states are feeling a serious financial pinch.
West Virginia is lowering corporate, business and consumer taxes. "We are poised to attract new businesses and help those in the state to grow," he said.
But the state is still lagging behind in public education, Tomblin said, noting that the state has the highest high school dropout rate.
"That's unacceptable," he said.
He promised to help the schools with state grants, but communities, civic organizations and churches must get involved, too, he said.
Tomblin said drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation holds great promise for West Virginia, provided regulations are in place to protect the environment and provide compensation for landowners. He said a compromise bill failed to pass in the recent legislative session so he plans on calling a special session this summer to work things out.
None of Tomblin's remarks centered on the state's coal industry.
He said the state is saving money to be ready for the added costs once new federal health care reforms begin.