ELKINS - Three state lawmakers broke bread with - and answered questions from - their constituents Thursday at the Elkins-Randolph County Chamber of Commerce's annual Legislative Luncheon.
The event gave local residents an advance look at topics state legislators will address during the upcoming session. Gary Clay, of Elkins, moderated the luncheon, held at the Randolph County Community Arts Center in Elkins.
Clay first asked the panel their thoughts on impending budget cuts by the state. Sen. Gregory Tucker, D-Nicholas, said he thought the budget would be tight in the coming year.
"Our coal severance revenues are down," Tucker said. "Marcellus shale is starting to pick up, but not as it was projected. So I see major budget cuts on the horizon for the next couple of years."
Delegate Bill Hartman, D-Randolph, agreed with Tucker.
"Upcoming budget cuts should not be a surprise," Hartman said. "One big concern is the expansion of the Medicaid program. Whether you like Obamacare or not, it's here to stay."
Hartman said an entrepreneurship and economic development committee was formed to help.
"The committee members plan to interview successful businessmen to find out their strategies," Hartman said. "Then they will try to apply those strategies to the state to bring successes."
Delegate Denise Campbell, D-Randolph, said she was proud of West Virginia.
"We are better off (financially) than many states in the United States," Campbell said. "We have reserves in our rainy day funds, and are using these funds to leverage better bond rates."
Campbell said one thing that bothers her is the total of 80,000 new Medicaid recipients in the state.
"I think we need to make arrangements for medical providers for these folks," Campbell said. "We need to make sure they have access to care and we need to provide mid-level providers for these folks."
Clay asked about state job layoffs in the future.
"Specifically, I am asking about rumors of cutbacks on substitute teachers," Clay said.
Hartman said it is imperative for the state to have a balanced budget.
"There are lots of ways to save money, but that comes with tough decisions," Hartman said. "We need to identify where cost savings are. But cutbacks on substitute teachers is new to me. Everyone, however, will need to tighten their belts."
Hartman warned that in the future, Budget Digest funds may go away.
"We need to bite the bullet and make necessary cuts," Hartman said. "We have to be objective and make compromises."
Campbell said she worries about the school systems, because in Randolph and surrounding counties, there are an average of 12 to 15 days of school missed due to winter weather.
"That is a lot to expect of the counties, when making up that time," Campbell said. "Extra hours come with extra expenses. This and other issues need to be addressed and tweaked."
Clay asked the panel about the effects an ethane cracker plant in Parkersburg would have on financial development in the state.
Tucker said he was "tickled to death by its coming."
"We thought the Boy Scouts would be the big boom for the state, but we did not get what we thought was coming," Tucker said. "You can't ignore economic development - coal is gone; oil and gas are not. We need to balance the budget."
Hartman said Appalachia is the new Saudi Arabia.
"We cannot be taken advantage of any more," Hartman said.
"The big issue is work force development. We have four big issues in our state in work force development - an aging population, obesity, educational development and drug problems caused by the disfunction of families.
"Maybe two out of 10 applicants can be hired," Hartman said. "The rest cannot pass a drug test. This is a social or societal problem and cannot be solved by
Campbell said a big educational issue is that vocational education is not just for students that struggle with math and science.
"My oldest son always wanted to go to college," Campbell said. "But not all students need to go down that road. There is a stigma associated with vocational education that is not true. We need to encourage students to participate in vocational education so there are workers for all jobs. We need to take a look at the needs, and generate more positive public relations for vocational education."
Tucker said the answer is simple to him.
"The governor appointed a task force to look into the curriculum requirements," Tucker said. "But it is too late to look at the credits when students are already through the system. Students need to be pointed in the right direction while they are still in the middle school, and encouraged by their guidance counselors. We need to get students into these programs earlier."
All three legislators agreed that more revenues need to be generated to help keep roads and bridges safe in West Virginia.
"My goal is to stick to a willingness to work with others, no matter what party they represent," Campbell said. "I am looking to make West Virginia a better place and to make a positive difference. I want to make the state a better place for its citizens."
Following Clay's questions, audience member Mike Gallogly urged the panel to work toward better telecommunications in the state.
"We are so far behind the curve," Gallogly said. "I would like to see the state work on better broadband for businesses and private residences in the state."
The 2014 Legislative Luncheon was sponsored by Kingsford, Huntington Banks and the Manahan Group.