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Wise gives 'to-do' list in State of State address

by Malia Rulon

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHARLESTON -- Gov. Bob Wise jumped into his first State of the State address Wednesday with a long but familiar list of "to do's" stemming from promises made on the campaign trail: Fund the PROMISE Scholarship, regulate video poker machines and improve economic development.

Wise's hour-long speech topped the first day of the Legislature's 60-day session and was a call for lawmakers to help him make West Virginia "far better."

In an unprecedented move, Wise presented Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, and House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh, two thick binders containing the administration's legislative proposals.

The presentation drew a standing ovation from senators, delegates and guests in the House of Delegate chambers.

"We have worked hard to get these ready in the 30 days I have been in office," he said. "We will work twice as hard with you to get them enacted in the next 60 days."

In the binders were proposals dealing with education, the continuation of the state's 5-cent gasoline tax, the sale of $110 million in road bonds, prescription drug programs for seniors, programs to boost economic development and others.

For teachers and state employees, Wise presented a pay plan that would increase correctional officers salaries by $2,000, teachers by $1,000 and public employees by $756.

The raises, however, would be delayed until Jan. 1, 2002, to help the state through a tight budget.

Wise told teachers their raise would be the first of a multiyear effort to bring the salaries up to the national average.

The governor also proposed modifying the Public Employees Insurance Agency. Employees hired after July 1 would not be able to covert unused sick leave into extended insurance coverage when they leave. Officials have said the provision has cost PEIA millions of dollars.

Many of Wise's financial proposals hinge on the passage of a $2.75 billion budget that is balanced on video poker and smokeless tobacco tax legislation. As is custom, the governor presented his budget proposal to Tomblin and Kiss.

Wise used Wednesday's speech to urge West Virginians to realize that progress can only be achieved if residents work together and make hard decisions.

The state's greatest asset is its people, he said, and the people demand "that we no longer accept the idea that West Virginia should take last place at the nation's table."

The message was well received as Wise's speech was often interrupted by applause.

Picking up from his campaign, Wise urged lawmakers to finally fund the PROMISE higher education scholarship program that was created in 1999.

"The voters of West Virginia last November elected a governor whose number one commitment was to make good on this promise," Wise said. "West Virginia students need this opportunity and incentive. It's time to quit talking and take action. The states we compete with are leaving us behind."

If adopted, the first scholarships would be offered for the fall of 2002.

The $12.5 million for the scholarship fund would come from part of the $22 million Wise estimates could be raised by regulating video poker machines in West Virginia.

The Lottery Commission would regulate the machines, which are referred to as gray machines. The machines would be limited to 9,000 statewide and no more than five under one roof. The machines also must be in areas not open to minors and operators must undergo background checks.

"Our convenience stores and gas stations are becoming unlicensed casinos. Children wander past gambling on their way to the candy counter. And, for years, the government of West Virginia has sat idly by and let this happen," Wise said.

To help keep jobs, Wise called for the creation of the West Virginia Jobs Swat Team that he would lead. The group could intervene to head off layoffs or business cutbacks.

To expand the economy, Wise asked for a $2.7 million Sunny Day Fund "so that when a company is at the point of making an investment decision to create jobs in West Virginia, the state immediately can come in and put some financial muscle into the negotiating process."

The governor said he also has signed executive orders creating the West Virginia Motorsports Council and a West Virginia Film Council to boost the state's profile in those industries.

And as a nod to West Virginia's steel industry, which has suffered losses and layoffs due to low-priced steel imports, Wise proposed legislation to require that U.S.-made steel be used in all state-funded projects.

On health care, Wise asked lawmakers to increase funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program, which was expanded last fall to include another estimated 14,000 children, and to develop a prescription drug benefit plan for seniors and low-income residents.

He also called on lawmakers to close tax loopholes on smokeless tobacco to raise $6 million, and approve a new Patient's Bill of Rights that expands protection for people treated unfairly by their health care provider or insurance company.

Wise introduced a land conservation proposal to protect the state's natural resources. The governor also said the state should take steps to ensure that natural resource extraction was conducted in a responsible manner.

In a push for increased use of technology, Wise called for putting more government services on line so residents would have 24-hour access, seven days a week.

"If we can buy books and CDs at 10 p.m., why can't we buy hunting and fishing licenses, reserve a cabin in a state park, renew a license plate, apply for a business permit or check the status of a tax return?" Wise asked.

This year's Legislature includes 18 new delegates and four new senators. On Wednesday, lawmakers held brief committee meetings. Some 199 bills were introduced in the House and 80 in the Senate.

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