By DANYEL VANREENEN
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Wednesday marked the beginning of the new legislative session in Charleston. Delegates and Senators both anxiously awaited Governor Jim Justice’s State of the State Address on Wednesday evening. Most agreed the real work would begin when Justice announced the new state budget.
House majority leader Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, said he feels excited and optimistic about the upcoming session, despite the projected $500 million gap in the state budget for the upcoming year.
Cowles said he introduced a bill to the House to help remedy the budget issue. Cowles’ bill would ensure that the projected revenue for any given year did not exceed the actual revenue of the previous year. Although Cowles said the revenue could potentially grow with new ventures or enterprises, he thinks it is safer to use those funds as a surplus instead of relying on the unprecedented income.
The budget was a central issue for Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, 15, as well. He said he hopes to balance the budget without raising taxes. To do that, Blair said the legislature would need to redefine government to make it more efficient.
“I’m cautiously optimistic about this session,” Blair said. “I think we’ve proved in the last two years that we can be capable and productive. We’ve shown we can take on tough issues and solve long-term problems.”
Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, 66, said the first day of the session had been busy, but the real work would begin the following week.
“The first day was primarily organizational in nature,” Espinosa said. “There were a list of bills introduced and they were assigned to committees where they decide where they will appear on the agenda.”
Espinosa reported a lot of informal conversations and general house keeping. As chair of the education committee, Espinosa said he is specifically focused on legislature affecting public schools and higher education institutes.
Espinosa wants to support bills that will assist local school districts to be more efficient and make decisions closer to classrooms. He said one problem with the education system is a one size fits all approach decided from Charleston. He hopes to give power back to local districts to cater to their needs.
Going forward, Espinosa expects the representatives from the Eastern Panhandle Caucus to meet in the following weeks to identify bills and legislature of interest to the Panhandle.
Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, 16, was primarily focused on Governor Justice’s address Wednesday evening, however. He hoped the governor would address the drug issue plaguing the state of West Virginia.
“We won’t be able to boost the economy if our work force has been decimated by drugs,” Unger said. “I hope Justice looks at the root of the problems facing West Virginia. The drug issue undermines other issues as well. Other things are just symptoms of the drug epidemic. I hope Justice will outline a holistic approach to the drug issue.”
Unger said one of his other concerns is the privatization of the Osteopathic School in Lewisburg.
“It may not affect the Eastern Panhandle directly, but it’s a slippery slope,”Unger said. “Once schools are privatized, there’s nothing stopping them from leaving the state. It becomes about profit. This particular bill may be about one school, but what stops others like Blue Ridge Community and Technical Institute and Shepherd University from being privatized? It raises a lot of concerns.”
Despite his concerns about the upcoming session, Unger said ensuring collaboration and cooperation across party lines is an absolute necessity.
“Partisanship is a major problem in the nation and in the state right now,”Unger said. “When parties start to matter more than people, it’s a problem we need to address.”
Regardless of concerns and upcoming bills, Cowles feels optimistic.
“I think everyone at the session is committed to helping West Virginia,” Cowles said.
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