Leaders brief WV press on session issues

Photo courtesy of West Virginia Press Association Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson) Gives his predictions for the 2019 Legislative Session during the WVPA’s Legislative LookAhead Friday at the WV Cultural Center.

CHARLESTON — While it appears Republican and Democratic lawmakers have more in common than not, there will still be some areas of disagreement when the Legislature meets for the 2019 general session next week.

Lawmakers from across the state will travel to Charleston for the first session of the 84th Legislature starting Wednesday at noon. Legislative leaders briefed reporters from the state’s newspapers Friday at the West Virginia Press Association’s annual Legislative Lookahead at the Culture Center.

The press heard from Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, Senate Minority Whip Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, and Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, who represented House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison.

Agreement between the two parties and the two different chambers focused on several issues, including a 5 percent pay raise for state employees, teachers, and school service personnel, as well as an additional $100 million for stabilization of the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

Other areas of agreement included elimination of taxes on Social Security benefits, broadband expansion, and creating a free or reduced community and technical college education program.

Carmichael, who also introduced similar legislation last year, said the program would provide two-year degrees for students out of high school and would cost approximately $900 per student with a $10 million investment by the state. Students would be required to work in the state for a certain number of years, submit to drug testing, and also perform acts of community service.

“This is a program that will break the cycle of poverty in West Virginia, remove the financial barrier to obtaining certification in a stackable skillset that one can take to the marketplace and earn a living, a very good living,” Carmichael said.

“We share the view that the Senate has that one of the biggest impediments to growing our state’s economy here is the need for more workforce training, a need for additional skilled development among our citizens here,” said House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, in a pre-recorded video played during the panel. “We want to take very seriously that call from our business leaders and our employers around the state to do more to make workforce training a priority.”

The proposal also elicited agreement from the two Democratic lawmakers on the panel. Palumbo pointed out that last year’s community and technical college bill passed unanimously out of the Senate and would likely pass again. Pushkin said his caucus would back it as well.

“I totally agree with President Carmichael, the community and technical college bill should be a priority of ours,” Palumbo said. “It was a priority in the Senate last year and it will be a priority of the Senate again. I’m optimistic that the House will take it up this year and pass it.”

“It’s a way to increase our workforce participation,” Pushkin agreed. “I think there will be a provision in there to keep folks in West Virginia once they obtain these degrees and become employable. We full support that.”

Despite these agreements, the panel differed on other proposals, such as an intermediate court of appeals. Pro-business organizations have advocated for such a court.

Carmichael supports an intermediate court, and with the Legislature having some say over the state Supreme Court of Appeals budget, he said an intermediate court can be done at minimal cost to taxpayers.

“We’re one of the very few states that does not have an intermediate appellate court so that there is no guaranteed right of appeal,” Carmichael said. “We believe that it is the right thing to do.”

Both Pushkin and Palumbo pushed back on creating an intermediate court, saying it’s not needed and a waste of money.

“I don’t think it’s a critical thing to do,” Palumbo said. “I don’t think for a second it’s going to move the needle in bringing more jobs to West Virginia. It doesn’t offend me to have an intermediate appellate court, but the supreme court…has a rule in place where they consider every appeal before them.”

“It’s not something you necessarily need,” Pushkin said. “It’s not something we believe on our side that’s keeping businesses out of the state.”

There is also concern by the Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate about what education reforms the majority plans to push. Both chambers have new chairs of their education committees: Delegate Danny Hamrick, R-Harrison, and state Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson. Rucker, who was a former teacher and homeschools her children, has received some criticism from Democrats who believe she isn’t qualified for her position. Carmichael asked that she be given a chance.

“I have been, frankly, shocked at the response that she’s gotten among not just people in the education community, but others,” Carmichael said. “Patricia Rucker will do a great job. She recognized that public education in West Virginia is so vital to moving this state forward.”