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Freshmen legislators react to lawmaking experience

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Freshman state legislators, a week removed from their first 60-day session in Charleston, had mixed reactions to what went on at the Capitol.

Del. Jill Upson, R-Jefferson, said, “We got a lot of really positive reforms out of this session.”
But Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, said the Republicans “appeared to be hell-bent” on passing “self-serving legislation.”
Del. Patsy Trecost, D-Harrison, was surprised lawmakers didn’t address some major issues.Del. Andrew Byrd, D-Kanawha, said it’s funny everyone asks him if he survived.Del. Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, was pleased with some legislation that he believes reinforces free markets but thought the Legislature passed some bills “that run diametrically opposed” to that objective.Upson, Romano, Trecost, Byrd and McGeehan were asked for their impressions following the first session in 83 years that was controlled by the Republicans.

Del. Jill Upson, R-Jefferson
Del. Jill Upson, R-Jefferson

Upson was asked what she tells people on the street about the session. “The word I always use is fast-paced,” she said. “It really was non-stop from day one. We got a lot of really positive reforms out of this session and I definitely had an opportunity to learn a lot.”

As a member of the House Education Committee, Upson participated in the debate over legislation that allows alternative teacher certification programs such as Teach for America in West Virginia.

The alternative certification program is designed to help fill the 700-plus teacher vacancies in the public schools. “I think that was a big legislative achievement that’s going to be helpful in the near future, not just in the long run,” Upson said.

Upson said her biggest disappointment was reading that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin use line-item vetoes to cut a total of $430,000 from the budgets of Shepherd University and Blue Ridge Community and Technical College.

“We worked hard as a body to restore that funding and I know Finance Chair Eric Nelson (R-Kanawha) worked hard on shifting things around to try to get a lot of the higher-ed money restored,” she said. The cut is especially painful “because Blue Ridge gets the lowest amount of funding per student statewide.”

Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison
Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison

Asked for his size-up of the session, Sen. Mike Romano said, “I think the new Republican majority showed themselves to be anti-worker in their proposed legislation and appeared to be hell-bent on some self-serving legislation that either carried out some misguided belief that government needed fundamentally changed or benefitted only the very richest people in the state.”

Romano said the public school system “was under constant attack” by proponents of charter schools, which, he said, would take money out of the public school system. Meanwhile, the Republicans “turned down bills that increased teacher salaries.”

“There were a lot of anti free-market bills,” he said, including a proposal that prohibits ride-sharing “which would have been of great benefit in rural areas where there is no taxi service.” The Republicans also refused to let Tesla Motors sell its vehicles directly to consumers, “which was a protectionist attitude.

“Overall, I thought the session failed to do what was our primary role, which is to put more money in the hands of working people,” Romano said. “The bills that were pushed through by the majority actually did the opposite,” such as legislation altering the prevailing wage.

“We did nothing to address one of the most serious problems in the state — our crumbling roads and infrastructure,” he said. The Democrats proposed several measures aimed at helping finance roads but the Republicans wouldn’t agree to any of them, he said.

Del. Patsy Trecost, D-Harrison
Del. Patsy Trecost, D-Harrison

Del. Patsy Trecost, D-Harrison, said he campaigned in Harrison and Taylor counties on roads, pay raises for state employees, the drug problem and overcrowded prisons.

“The one thing that caught me by surprise more than anything was those subjects were never brought to the forefront,” he said. “At about the middle of the session I realized, ‘We’re not talking about the things that we campaigned on!’ I look forward to my sophomore year as a legislator to work on those subjects.”

Trecost was pleased the Legislature passed several tort reforms. One creates a comparative fault standard. Trecost explained it this way: “If you’re at fault 60 percent and I’m at fault 40 percent and if you go bankrupt or don’t have the means to pay, then the full 100 percent doesn’t fall on me.

“The argument was that (by ensuring defendants only pay for their share) you’re not rewarding the victim.” But “if I had to take up your 60 percent or you had to take up my 40 percent, I feel like we’re creating another victim. That is not what we were in Charleston to do.”

Trecost also liked a bill that reinstates the “open and obvious” doctrine in premises liability. The doctrine holds that property owners can’t be held liable if someone injures himself due to a hazard on their property if the hazard is open and obvious.

Also, “I really like the trespassing bill, where before if you fell out of a tree stand on someone’s property where you were trespassing, the property owner was liable. That’s not the case anymore. I thought that was a very good bill.”

He also was pleased with passage of a bill that limits the liability of county boards of education for loss or injury from the use of school property made available for unorganized recreation.

As a member of the House Education Committee, Trecost said he was glad the Legislature addressed some home schooling issues but he voted against the bill allowing alternative teacher certification programs.

Del. Andrew Byrd, D-Kanawha
Del. Andrew Byrd, D-Kanawha

Byrd, from South Charleston, laughed when asked how he is doing. “Everyone asks me, ‘Did you survive?’ not, ‘How did it go?’ I knew that’s what I was signing up for. That’s what I keep telling people.”

Byrd figures he knocked on more than 10,000 doors prior to his November election, asking residents about their top concerns.

“I found they were most concerned about jobs and the mass exodus of people leaving the state, including young and old, which brought up the topic of how do we attract people to the state and keep them here?

“The second issue was potholes, local roads, and the worsening infrastructure. The third issue was meth problems, especially with vacant homes which become havens for illegal drug activity.”

Of the bills Byrd introduced or co-sponsored, one passed: the West Virginia Property Rescue Initiative. It sets up a revolving loan account that municipalities can tap to tear down dilapidated houses.

In an attempt to give young people an incentive to move back to West Virginia, Byrd sponsored a bill that would give taxpayers repaying their student loans a state tax break. Byrd was disappointed the bill didn’t make it out of the House Finance Committee.

Byrd also introduced a bill that would provide a tax credit of up to $5,000 for first-time home buyers. It wasn’t approved. The state Tax Department estimated it would result in a revenue loss of about $36 million a year.

If the tax-break bills had passed, Byrd thought they might have generated some stories about how West Virginia was trying to attract newcomers. He plans to introduce the bills again next year.

Another bill introduced by Byrd would give the public input in setting the list of priorities for road construction and repair. Byrd said he is now working with the state Division of Highways to try to make this an internal agency process.

Del. Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock
Del. Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock

McGeehan, of Hancock County, wasn’t a true freshman — he also served in the House of Delegates from 2009 to 2011. But during his first term, McGeehan was one of 29 Republicans. This time there were 64.

“I was pleased to see we took on some good issues that are going to help with our free-market thinking going forward,” he said. “But we really deviated somewhat from that objective by taking on some policies that run diametrically opposed to free markets.”

In McGeehan’s plus column: repeal of the so-called cap-and-trade law, which would have eventually required utilities to use renewable resources (“It could have potentially raised utility rates in the long term,” he said.) and several tort reforms (“They will help move West Virginia away from the stigma so many have labeled as a ‘judicial hell hole.’”).

Asked what he considers deviations, McGeehan said, “First and foremost, we grew the size of government. Which I find, with a Republican-controlled Legislature, is peculiar.”

McGeehan said Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin “didn’t offer a truly balance budget. It had a deficit and the majority chose to plug it with earnings from teachers’ pensions and the Rainy Day Fund. If this is the path chosen, the path of least resistance, what will happen next year if there’s a larger deficit and when there is an election?”

Most disappointing to McGeehan was the Legislature’s failure to repeal Common Core education standards.

But he was pleased the Legislature failed to approve a bill that would compel holdout landowners to join gas-leasing agreements with their neighbors. Advocates call it “fair pooling” and “lease integration.” McGeehan and other opponents call it “forced pooling.”

McGeehan hopes the next Legislature takes up “tax relief for the majority of West Virginians.” He would love to eliminate the personal property tax on vehicles. Also, “we need to get our fiscal matters under control because I think we’ll find ourselves in a worse predicament this time next year,” he said.

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