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Breakfast and Bills: Eastern Panhandle lawmakers meet with constituents to discuss legislative session

By Jeff McCoy

The Journal of Martinsburg

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va.  — Senators, delegates and constituents alike sat down for an intimate breakfast hosted by the League of Women Voters of Jefferson County on Saturday, which allowed legislative leaders to discuss issues of interest.

“It’s the league’s mission to foster interaction and activity from its members and to educate citizens. We are non-partisan. We’re asking people to be active and we think that makes a better democracy and better constituency,” said League of Women Voters of Jefferson County Vice President Mary Sell.

The forum was sold out and featured Senator John Unger II, D-16th District; Senator Patricia Rucker, R-16th District; Delegate Jill Upson, R-65th District; Delegate Riley Moore, R-67th District; and Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-66th District, who addressed many issues concerning their local constituency.

One hot button issue was the recent veto of the state’s proposed budget by Governor Jim Justice.

“I am disappointed the governor didn’t approve what we thought was a responsible spending plan. The plan we put forth would have, by and large, been in line with the revenue estimates the governor has provided us. Obviously the governor thought otherwise. … Certainly we will look forward to continuing to meet with the governor to try to help close the gap between his vision, which relies on significant tax increases, and that of both the House and the Senate, which has taken an approach of really trying to live within our means. Hopefully we can somehow close that gap,” Espinosa said.

Moore said he is prepared to go back to the Capitol and deal with the budget.

“It’s just going to depend on if we call ourselves in or if the governor calls us in. If we call ourselves in we have a lot more control over what the agenda is going to be. If the governor calls us in, he sets the agenda,” Moore said. “No legislature really has considered calling themselves in since the 1950s … but I think there are a lot of advantages of calling ourselves in because we can have more on the table than just the budget. Some other issues that might be able to affect the budget such as tax reform.”

According to Unger, he is concerned at how party lines are being drawn.

“The biggest issue we need to address is the budget. That is the only issue the Legislature is required to pass. We can point fingers and we can talk about the details of that, but I can tell you the concern I have in Charleston is very (similar to) Washington, D.C. I don’t see the difference between the two,” Unger said. “The partisanship is elevated to new levels, and I’m talking about both sides where it is dysfunctional — it’s breaking down.”

And with the July 1 deadline approaching, the clock to pass a budget is ticking.

“My concern is I don’t know if we are going to get a budget by July 1. The bottom line is this is serious business,” Unger said. “I know people say this but we have to believe it — we’re West Virginians first. We’re not Democrat, Republican or Independent. You have to be West Virginians and Americans first.”

According to Upson, the state has proven the ability to work within budget in the past.

“Our population is 1.8 million people in the state. That is the same population in 1992. In 1992, we brought $1.9 billion into the state and we spent $1.8 billion. It is possible for us, at the state level, to live within our means,” Upson said.

Espinosa said he doesn’t believe in implementing new taxes in order to balance the budget.

“The governor has made clear from the outset that he wants to see massive tax increases enacted in order to balance the budget. We made it clear that we did not support burdening our taxpayers with additional taxes. The governor joined us in that while he was campaigning,” Espinosa said. “Once he became installed, he immediately proposed what would have amounted to the largest tax increase in state history.”

All of the speakers addressed different bills they introduced. Upson discussed other issues on which she has worked.

“We are serious about people who are bringing drugs into our state and causing problems and even death to our citizens,” Upson said.

She saw to it that the penalties for getting caught with drugs would increase.

“It goes up to 45 years in jail,” Upson said. “Another bill we passed addresses drugs being brought into the state from another state. We increased those penalties. It used to be one to 15 years, so we increased that up to 30 years.”

According to Upson, she wants to open 600 treatment centers with the drug company court settlement to help those fighting a drug addiction. She also discussed a bill that was first introduced in Maryland called “Grace’s Law.” The bill is named in honor of Howard County, Maryland teenager Grace McComas, a 15-year-old high school student that committed suicide on Easter Sunday last year after being repeatedly cyber bullied through social media.

“The bill got (stalled) on issues people thought might have been unconstitutional, so apparently bullying is considered free speech. We’re going to bring it back next year,” Upson said.

Upson also addressed a bill which would put people back to work who have a criminal background.

“We made it where after 10 years of a non-violent felony (you can) have your felony conviction reduced to a misdemeanor. That is going to help a lot of people,” Upson said.

Unger addressed his work to end water pollution within the state.

“There was a bill passed which rolled back the Water Protection Act that I was involved in during the spill in Charleston,” Unger said.

The representatives were asked what they could do to streamline the process of government business.

“If you look at the bills that I have introduced, most of them are because someone has called or emailed me and asked that I introduce the legislation. I would not want to move away from a position of being an actual representative,” Upson said.

Espinosa made mention of the success of his bills.

“I had a total of 166 bills referred to our House Education Committee,” Espinosa said.

According to Moore, some legislation has been outdated for years — making reference to his Resort License Bill.

“They’re not going to change on their own unless directed, and I think if we’re not modernizing them, they will not modernize themselves. I think that is what I strived to do with my Resort License Bill, Circuit Clerk Bill and, with Senator Rucker, the motorcycle licensing,” Moore said.

The pressure is on for passing a budget and tackling the many problems associated. With the governor pushing for higher taxes, the representatives know that something has to give soon.

“We have citizens in West Virginia who are struggling to make ends meet, who are barely getting by, and they need us to not add to their burden,” Rucker said.

Staff writer Jeff McCoy can be reached at [email protected].

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