By ANDREW BROWN
State Sen. Mitch Carmichael was elected as the next West Virginia Senate President Wednesday, as the Republican-led legislature prepares to face another state budget crisis and many other institutional problems in the Mountain State.
Carmichael, who served last session as the Senate majority leader, told incumbents and some new members of the Senate that the “theme” of this year’s legislative session is going to be jobs — a message that has often been reiterated by both political parties in West Virginia.
As he replaces state senator Bill Cole, who lost his bid for governor, Carmichael will face the reality of a severe budget deficit that current Revenue Secretary Bob Kiss has said could be north of $400 million.
They will also be confronted with economic, health and educational outcomes that have plagued West Virginia for decades, including some of the worst rates of unemployment, workforce participation, opioid addiction, drug overdose deaths and educational attainment in the country.
In his speech, which marked the third year of Republican control of the state’s highest legislative body, Carmichael recognized those challenges.
“My fellow senators, our state is in trouble,” Carmichael said. “There is no way to sugarcoat it or make it less unpleasant. Our citizens have the lowest per-capita income in America and are some of the poorest in the country.”
He went on to list the state’s other ills, including the fact that West Virginia is the only state in the country to lose population in the past 50 years.
Democratic Senate members also recognize those same realities.
“We now face some of our most critical issues,” Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, said in his speech affirming Carmichael as president. “Our fiscal stability is no longer on steady ground. Our once banner bond rating has slowly eroded. Our education and health systems, only to mention a few, are grossly underfunded. Our roads are crumbling. Our workforce participation is at an all-time low and we lead the nation in drug addiction.”
Both Carmichael and Prezioso suggested that they could work together to fix some of the biggest issues affecting West Virginians, but in recent years, bipartisanship has been difficult to find on some of the biggest pieces of legislation.
Some of those laws got Democratic support, but legislation targeting labor unions has split the Legislature down party lines. Democrats argued on behalf of the labor organizations. Republicans argued that laws needed to be changed in order to make the state more attractive to corporations.
On Wednesday, that split was evident again when the Republican leadership changed the name of the Senate Labor Committee to the Senate Workforce Committee — a move that was seen as a symbolic knock on labor groups.
In his speech, Carmichael said that the “historic” 2016 election “validated a bold, pro-growth agenda.”
“The voters chose quite clearly to trust in a new direction and take the next step towards prosperity,” Carmichael said. “All of us agree, the citizens want, need and deserve jobs and a growing economy.”
The Republican Senate president also espoused hope that President-elect Donald Trump would somehow revive the state’s economy, which has relied heavily on the diminishing coal industry.
“These are exciting times to be a West Virginian,” Carmichael said. “A new president of the United States is poised to lift the heavy boot of federal over-regulation from the neck of West Virginia.”
Carmichael’s address was given immediately before Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin gave his farewell address, where he called for the Legislature to pass a 1 percent sales tax and an additional tax on cell phones in order to increase state revenue.
After the outgoing governor’s speech, Carmichael reiterated that he believes the state’s struggling budget can be balanced without Tomblin’s prescribed taxes — a plan that would require significant cuts and reorganization in state government.
Carmichael said he hopes to work with incoming governor Jim Justice to pass a budget with no new tax increases, something the governor-elect has been unwilling to completely support or rule out.
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