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Underwood bids farewell to lawmakers

by Randy Coleman

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHARLESTON -- Gov. Cecil Underwood bowed out with class on Wednesday, lawmakers said.

During a 20-minute farewell speech to the Legislature in the House of Delegates chamber, Underwood talked of highways his administration has built -- such as Corridor H -- and technology it's brought to West Virginia -- such as more classroom computers.

He also hammered on themes that were lost causes for his administration. Underwood urged lawmakers to change the state's tax structure and pass legislation that would limit lawsuit awards, two of his proposals the Legislature has refused to enact.

"The present tax system cannot meet the needs of our citizens. One way or another, at some time or another, this issue must be addressed," Underwood said. "More sin taxes and greater dependence on gambling revenues are not ways to go. They are unreliable revenue sources to say nothing of the signals they send about our values of thrift and responsibility"

Underwood said the nation's legal system is "out of control in every state, but no more so than in West Virginia, and we can afford it the least."

"Trial lawyers and a handful of lucky plaintiffs get rich," Underwood said. "The rest of us pay many fold through increased insurance rates and decreased economic growth."

Underwood also praised the Legislature, saying West Virginia has gone through "12 years of conservative, business-oriented, problem-solving government."

Underwood urged lawmakers to measure their actions by "the yardstick of economic growth."

"Do those things that contribute to growth and do not do those things that detract from growth," Underwood said.

The Republican Underwood, 77, was defeated in the general election by U.S. Rep. Bob Wise. Underwood was West Virginia's youngest governor during his first term from 1957-1961 and the state's oldest the past four years.

Lawmakers of both parties say they personally like and respect Underwood. While legislative leaders have sometimes criticized Underwood for not communicating more closely with them, their criticisms were always gentle.

"He's a fine man. Everybody here will tell you that. He truly went out as a gentlemen," said Sen. Mike Ross, D-Randolph.

On Wednesday, the Legislature gave long and loud applause to Underwood as he was introduced and to his speech at its conclusion. But Senate Judiciary Chairman Bill Wooton, D-Raleigh, said that gesture was "because we like the man so much, it had nothing to do with his speech."

As his final act, Underwood turned over his proposed fiscal year 2001-2002 budget to Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, and House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh.

The proposal will never receive legislative action, however, because lawmakers will act on Wise's budget proposal.

"It's a starting point for the new administration. Preparing a budget begins in the summer, and this is the governor's proposal," said Underwood spokesman Rod Blackstone.

Underwood's proposed $2.74 billion budget is slightly higher than the $2.71 billion proposed this year.

Following his speech, Underwood stopped to shake hands with members of his administration and hug members of his family.

After Underwood bent down and kissed his wife, Hovah, the applause stopped.

Underwood's final walk up the middle aisle of the House chamber, through the Legislature, was met with silence.

"That was unusual. There's usually a kid of a buzz in the crowd at that point, but it was completely quiet," Wooton said. "I would have to say that was out of respect."

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