By George Hohmann
For the W.Va. Press Association
SOUTH CHARLESTON — The state’s budget shortfall, education, forced pooling and broadband expansion are among the topics expected to occupy the legislative session that begins Wednesday.
The state Department of Revenue estimates West Virginia will finish the budget year with a $353 million deficit.
State Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler said, “I think you’re going to see this session overwhelmingly dominated by money or the lack thereof.”
Kessler was among the legislative and other leaders who spoke Jan. 8 at The Associated Press Legislative Lookahead conference, held at Marshall University’s South Charleston Campus.
The Marshall County Democrat, who is running for governor, noted that for the first time in his legislative career the state is cutting the budget for public education by 1 percent. Kessler pointed out that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin ordered the cut before the extent of the budget deficit became known.
“It could get worse,” Kessler said.
It became clear during a panel discussion that the controversy over education standards, which became heated last year, is not over.
Calls for repeal of standards known as Common Core during last year’s session prompted the state Department of Education to review them.
State Superintendent of Schools Michael Martirano said the department received 250,000 comments on the standards yielding more than 100 recommendations for improvements.
In November the state Board of Education voted to repeal the K-12 math and English standards and replace them with new standards called the West Virginia College and Career Ready Standards.
State Del. Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, who chairs the House Education Committee, said he was pleased when he learned that Martirano would repeal the standards.
“But the standards proposed to replace them — with some positive changes — very closely mirror the standards that were supposedly repealed,” Espinosa said.
“I think the continuing concern is that, with the extent of the concerns that were expressed out there, the fact is that essentially, in our estimation, what you have is Common Core standards re-branded. To think that is going to resolve the concerns, I just don’t think it’s realistic.”
Martirano said math and English standards across the states are 80 to 90 percent compatible because all of them are research-guided and because there is a learning progression for young people developmentally.
While he remains open to suggestions for improving the standards, “what I’m opposed to is the constant repeal efforts for the sake of repealing and replacing with something that has not been endorsed by our teachers,” Martirano said. “We have to be very careful about disrupting our classrooms year after year.”
Kessler said, “The worst thing that can happen is for this issue to become a political football during the 2016 legislative session.”
Repealing the standards “sounds good but what are we going to replace them with and at what cost?” Kessler asked. “Those are the questions that need to be answered. We need to focus on what is going to make our kids career-ready. That is the guiding star of this whole debate. If it becomes political, the kids lose.”
Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers in West Virginia, said she is concerned that the ongoing debate is distracting from the need to fill 600 teacher vacancies across the state and the need to provide teachers with essential classroom materials.
Kessler said the Public Employees Insurance Agency’s decision to cut benefits for active employees and retirees by a total of $120 million is equivalent to a pay cut and will make it harder to attract and keep qualified educators.
“It’s all about money,” Kessler said. “We need to find whether or not we have the commitment as legislators to find the money to properly fund education. If we don’t fund education, all of these other platitudes and platforms the other candidates have won’t amount to a hill of beans. The only way we’re going to dig ourselves out of this mess is through education.”
Asked what he would do, Kessler said he would raise the tobacco tax and attack the state’s low workforce participation rate by promoting the skills that can be learned at the state’s community and technical colleges.
Forced pooling, which compels landowners to join natural gas-leasing agreements with neighbors, is another issue expected to come up in the session.
A forced-pooling bill passed the state Senate last year but died in a tie vote in the House of Delegates.
Del. Woody Ireland, R-Ritchie, said he has been working with other stakeholders to improve the bill since the last session. “I think we will pass it this time or we won’t end up getting it passed at all,” he said.
Tom Huber, vice president of the West Virginia Royalty Owners Association, said his group, which was established to fight forced pooling, supports Ireland’s bill because it protects the rights of mineral and surface owners.
David McMahon, a lawyer representing mineral and surface owners, said the bill has good features but he would like to see tougher regulation of noise and pollution.
Maribeth Anderson, government relations manager for Southwestern Energy Co., said the bill has wide support because everybody gets something they want.
She said the bill is good public policy because it permits development of the state’s natural gas resources in the most efficient way possible, which can help ease the state’s budget deficit.
Internet access and speed also are expected to get legislators’ attention.
State Sen. Chris Walters, R-Putnam, wants the state to use federal grants and a bond issue to build a so-called middle-mile Internet network.
But Kevin Wallick, general manager of Frontier Communications in West Virginia, said Frontier would have no interest in using another network. He said Frontier has 44,000 miles of copper wire and 9,000 miles of fiber in West Virginia.
Questioning the benefit of Walters’ plan, Wallick said seven middle-mile networks owned by private companies already exist in the state.
Elaine Harris, who represents Communications Workers of America union members who work for Frontier, said the union doesn’t support using public money to build middle-mile networks.
Gale Given, the state’s chief technology officer, agreed with Walters that Internet speeds in the state “are not fast enough,” broadband “is not pervasive enough” and “the need for speed is not going to slow down.” However, “I think I would attack the problem differently,” she said.
The Legislative Lookahead was sponsored by The Associated Press with assistance from Marshall University’s School of Journalism and the West Virginia Press Association.