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Eastern Panhandle lawmakers reflect on Legislature


The Journal

CHARLESTON, W.Va.  — With the anticipated passing of the FY2018 state budget bill Saturday, the special legislative session is winding to a close. Since January, state representatives from the Eastern Panhandle advocated for many bills dealing with education, tax reform and the state drug epidemic. While some bills will become state law on July 1, others were stalled in committees or voted down.

“We had a new group of legislators and a new governor — who was unlike any governor this state has seen before — so it’s fair to say there was a learning curve for everybody in how to deal with each other and the ‘new normal,’” said Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley. “I’m proud of how we in the Senate managed to come together more than once, however, and managed to put West Virginia first.”

Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley

Getting representatives from the House and Senate together with Gov. Jim Justice to pass legislation was not always easy, but Delegate Jill Upson, R-Jefferson, said Eastern Panhandle representatives worked hard to make sure the poorest West Virginians were not placed at risk. Upson said Medicaid and health care waiver programs were adequately funded by the FY2018 budget bill, and it does not raise taxes — a concern for many in the Eastern Panhandle.

Education committee chair Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, said many important bills were passed for higher education institutions and the state’s K-12 system. Although teachers were not given a pay raise for the FY2018 year, Espinosa said bills were passed to give K-12 schools more flexibility and independence.

Higher education institutions and K-12 schools were both given more autonomy — meaning schools can decide to use state funds in a variety of ways. Espinosa said public schools were given flexibility to spend school aid formula dollars to address some pressing needs, and RESA’s lost state funding, which Espinosa believes will help them return to their initial entrepreneurial role.

In general, Espinosa said he wants to continue to empower schools to make more decisions locally rather than at the state level, and the bills passed during the regular session are a step in the right direction.

First time Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, also highlighted accomplishments in state education.

Del. Jill Upson, R-Jefferson

“I believe my biggest accomplishment in the past session was helping to loosen the stranglehold of federal control on the West Virginia school system through legislation that allows us to leave Common Core; although I believe that the job isn’t quite finished,” Rucker said. “Also, leaving Common Core is not the end point, it is a new beginning. We need to empower our teachers through greater local control. To that end, I am also proud of the so-called flexibility bills aimed at improving both public schools and higher education.”

Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said legislation was also passed to deal with the state drug epidemic.

“In order to make headway, we must fight the drug epidemic on multiple fronts: we need public education curriculum, stout and severe punishments for those bringing drugs into the state and those conspiring to commit drug felonies and more funding for treatment options,” Trump said.

Although legislation to stem the drug epidemic will become law in July, Trump said he wanted to see more measures to reduce Medicaid fraud passed as well. Although SB500 was stalled in the judiciary committee, Trump said protections are needed for the over $4 billion Medicaid program. He wants to limit Medicaid funds for West Virginians in need and reduce fraud within the system. Trump said he’s optimistic that a similar bill will be reintroduced in the future.

“It’s not uncommon for a bill to take multiple years to get across the finish line,”Trump said.

House newcomer Delegate Riley Moore, R-Jefferson, considers his first session in Charleston a success. As a freshman delegate, Moore said several of the bills he introduced were passed during the regular session. One of Moore’s bills requires a $10 per person charge for civil lawsuits — Moore said the current system charges only $10 per suit, not taking into account the number of defendants.

Moore also passed a bill providing funding to process forensic evidence across the state. Many forensic labs lack funding to process evidence, and evidence is often backlogged as a result, according to Moore.

Although many tax reform measures were stalled in the House and Senate, Moore said he intends to reintroduce his small business tax credit bill, which would provide incentives for business owners during their first five years. The bill would allow small businesses a five year reprieve from income taxes, which would help them get up and running, according to Moore. However, he said he needs to create a more stringent definition of “small businesses.”

Despite other bills and issues during the session, Delegate John Overington, R-Berkeley, said the budget was always the primary concern.

“The budget was our number one responsibility as legislators this year,”Overington said.

Overington said the FY2018 budget will spend approximately $85 million less than the FY 2017 budget, and he’s glad no new regulations or taxes were passed on tax payers and businesses.

Although Delegate Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, said the FY2018 budget was a “skinny” budget, he was glad Blue Ridge Community and Technical College and Shepherd University were shielded from statewide budget cuts. He said having a 2018 budget is important, but legislators will need to look ahead to work on issues in the future.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” Cowles said. “But I think Eastern Panhandle interests were well represented in Charleston.”

Not all Eastern Panhandle representatives were thrilled with the budget, however. Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, said he was disappointed with the budget bill that was passed. In the future, Unger said the state system needs to be modernized.

“The system needs modernized instead of patch worked,” Unger said. “We need to look at the structure — it hasn’t been overhauled since the 60s.”

Unger said industries once prominent in the state should not be West Virginia’s sole income. Currently, Unger said the state depends on the coal and gaming industries, and he wants to see the state diversify to remain more competitive.

“I’m not saying to abandon those industries, but we can’t rely solely on gaming and coal. We need to diversify our economy,” Unger said.

Delegate Jason Barrett, D-Berkeley, said the statewide cuts to higher education were irresponsible as well.

“We need educated youth and an educated work force. Cutting higher education is a disservice to the state,” Barrett said.

Although the FY2018 budget will be passed with the governor’s signature less than two weeks before the deadline, Barrett said he expects next year’s budget talks to be even more difficult because of the election cycle. Upson agreed that the budget battle was tough, but she said the Eastern Panhandle was well-served and well-represented.

“My hope for next session is that we’re able to hit the ground running and get complicated pieces of legislation, such as comprehensive tax reform, on the table and in committee in the very first days,” Blair said. “A great deal of a successful session relies on time management, and I think we were able to learn some lessons this year on how it can slow progress if you wait too long to get more difficult or contentious bills to committee and to the floor. Obviously, that priority for me is going to be our tax reform package. If we want West Virginia to grow and to change, there must be a fundamental transformation. I realize it’s scary, but it has to start somewhere.”

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