Legislative Luncheon

Lawmakers who spoke at the Elkins-Randolph County Chamber of Commerce’s Legislative Luncheon Wednesday got right down to business – local businesses and the issues affecting them, that is.

Topics of discussion at the luncheon – which took place at the Randolph County Community Arts Center – included questions surrounding education reform, balancing the state budget and addressing statewide drug addiction.

Del. Denise Campbell, D-Randolph, is one of nine House members appointed to a committee that is reviewing the recent audit performed on the West Virginia state school system. Campbell said the committee has met three times and is listening to all stakeholders.

“We have heard from the (West Virginia Education Association), the (American Federation of Teachers), the Chamber,” Campbell said. “We’ve heard from school teachers from Monongalia County and learned about programs in Kanawha County that were implemented locally and had positive outcomes.

“We are now waiting to hear from the governor, and we look forward to sitting down with the governor,” she said. Campbell said several issues that need to be reviewed include the effect of teachers’ salaries in retaining highly skilled teachers and student absenteeism.

And although Campbell said she was open to exploring a foster mentoring program that would provide additional support to struggling students, “Legislation cannot make parents be parents,” she said. “We can have the best programs and the best teachers, but if students don’t attend school, how are we going to make sure they graduate from high school and get good jobs?”

Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, said, “We’ve got to get out of the rut of demeaning vocational education.”

“That’s got to be part of education reform as well,” Barnes said. “Students have got to be able to take what goes on up in their heads and take it to their hands.”

Sen. Greg Tucker, D-Nicholas, weighed in on the issue, saying he was currently opposed to instituting a balanced calendar system, or year-round school.

“The balanced calendar sounds like a good idea, but the problem is a lot of our schools, especially in the southern part of the state, don’t have air conditioning, and you can’t send kids to school without air conditioning,” Tucker said. “That’s just cruel.”

When moderator Gary Clay quizzed legislators about the likelihood that change in the education system will actually come to fruition, Tucker and Campbell said yes.

“I think people in the state are going to demand changes in education,” Tucker said.

Campbell said legislators have been hearing “a large outcry” from the public.

“I believe in my heart there will be change,” she said. “The student is the number one reason why we should be addressing changes in education, and if the student benefits, then we all benefit.”

Clay asked the panel of lawmakers how the budget will be balanced this fiscal year.

Tucker said he thought legislators would be “hard pressed” to balance the budget.

Del. Bill Hartman, D-Randolph, said cutting spending was the key.

“Somehow, we’ve got to quit spending,” he said. “I don’t care what your political persuasion is, we need to look at spending as a whole and create a culture that makes people want to excel and want to work. I’m not sure we can write a piece of legislation that can make that happen.”

Campbell said the Legislature needs to take a good hard look at which state programs work and which don’t through routine evaluations.

“We really need to take a serious look at, are these programs doing what they’re supposed to be doing?” she said.

Barnes said he believed West Virginia could create a more business-friendly climate by becoming a right-to-work state.

“The statistics nationwide show that the jobs are going to the right-to-work states,” Barnes said. “You can say ‘statistics are statistics,’ but they’re getting 90 percent of the jobs.”

All four lawmakers agreed that businesses are experiencing problems with hiring and retaining workers due to a rampant drug problem in the state. Barnes said he thought physicians, like pharmacists, should participate in a real-time system that would track how many and what kind of prescriptions their patients had obtained.

“We require pharmacists to participate (in tracking programs), but we don’t require physicians to participate, and there’s been a great deal of resistance from the health care community,” Barnes said. “But we hope the physicians will get involved because the physicians are the ones writing the prescriptions.”

While Barnes said he saw abuse of prescription medication as the number one drug problem, Hartman pointed toward methamphetamine.

“I see a meth arrest on the front page of the paper every three days,” he said. “Drug abuse affects every segment of life, and I’m not sure we really know what the answer is.”

Legislators also discussed the high need for infrastructure improvements, particularly to state and county roads.

“We’re a rural state and we depend on our roads,” Tucker said. “We can’t let our secondary roads deteriorate. Now, I’m not in favor of raising taxes, but we need to stop that trend because that’s our livelihood.”

Campbell said she thought the Legislature should consider tacking a fee onto drivers’ licenses that could be funneled into a fund for road maintenance.

“We really do need to seriously look at that,” she said.

More than 100 people attended Wednesday’s luncheon, which was sponsored by Kingsford, Huntington Bank and The Manahan Group.

Contact Katie Kuba by email at kkuba@theintermountain.com.