By George Hohmann
For West Virginia Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As the state legislative session enters its final weeks, House Speaker Tim Armstead said he’s pleased with the progress that’s been made, proud that lawmakers have tackled some significant issues, and confident solutions will be found to the state’s budget deficit.
In a wide-ranging, exclusive interview on the 38th day of the 60-day session, Armstead said, “We’ve tackled some very big issues — some issues that will have a significant impact on moving our state forward.”
The Kanawha County Republican said passage of the Workplace Freedom Act, also known as right-to-work, “was essential to attract employers to the state” and repeal of the Prevailing Wage Act was necessary “to make sure we can build more roads, more bridges, more schools with the limited dollars we have.”
Next up: The budget.
It’s estimated that the state will end the fiscal year on June 30 with a $353 million budget shortfall. In October Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin ordered 4 percent cuts in nearly every state agency and a 1 percent cut in public schools. Earlier this month Tomblin complained that the Legislature hasn’t addressed budget issues.
“As we get through the remainder of this session, obviously our budget will be a large part of that discussion,” Armstead said. “I find it kind of ironic that never in my 19 years here have we passed a budget before day 60 (of the Legislative session) yet we’re hearing people saying, ‘Why haven’t we solved all of these budget issues?’
“We’ve had very productive discussions in the finance committees on both the House and Senate side. We’ve asked the agencies probing questions about how they spend the money they’re allotted, how they can be more efficient, how we can make cuts in those agencies. That’s a very detailed process.”
In addition, “we’ve asked each agency to tell us how they could come up with a 6.5 percent additional cut,” he said. “We’ll look at those. That doesn’t mean we’ll do all of those cuts.” With a $353 million deficit in the current budget year and a similar if not larger deficit expected next year, “we have tough choices to make. We need to discuss those and look at the impact those decisions will have on all of the people who sent us here. It would be irresponsible, I think, to rush into those decisions.”
Legislators have been working through budget issues and “we’ll continue doing that in the remaining weeks. We will have a balanced budget as we always do. It will take much more work this year than it has in past years but we’re up to the task and doing that work as we speak.”
Armstead said that in addition to dealing with controversial issues and the budget, the Legislature has been tackling important topics like ethics reform and substance abuse that don’t always make headlines.
One looming problem facing lawmakers is what to do about a $120 million hole in the Public Employees Insurance Agency budget. If nothing is done, health insurance costs will increase for the more than 200,000 public employees and retirees who depend on the PEIA.
“There seems to be a lot of angst over that as if somehow we must pass a bill today,” Armstead said. “The truth is, there is no funding shortage for fiscal year 2016. Whatever we do will not kick in until July 1, 2016.
“I’d rather make sure we get it right than try to rush out here and do something in the first week or two just because people say that needs to be done,” he said. “It does need to be done but it needs to be done correctly.
“It will be ultimately addressed in our fiscal 2017 budget, which is three to four weeks away from passage. That is where that issue will be addressed. I think the people of West Virginia will be pleased with how we will address it in the budget.”
Armstead alluded to an unsuccessful effort by Democrats early in the session to put off paying some of the state’s bills to instead help fund the PEIA. “There have been attempts to amend bills to try to make a point with what I think in many cases are irresponsible approaches that don’t really solve the problems but give a good sound bite,” he said.
Such behavior may have to do with the fact it’s an election year, he said, noting that in the past the Legislature shied away from significant issues during election years. But “we don’t have that luxury,” he said.
Also, some grandstanding may have to do with the fact that Legislative sessions are being live-streamed on the Internet, giving lawmakers an opportunity to attract attention, Armstead said. Even if that’s the case, he said he’s in favor of live-streaming because it provides a more open government.
“We recognize that when you take on tough issues, it will engender a lot of emotion and debate and that’s what we’re seeing. That’s OK. It’s part of the process. When you nibble around the edges, as unfortunately I think the Legislature and the leadership of our state has done for several decades, you don’t engender that kind of fervor but you also don’t solve the issues, you don’t take them on.
“Again, we don’t have that luxury. We’re last in workforce participation. We’re losing population. We continue to be 48th, 49th, 50th in K-12 student achievement. The people of West Virginia deserve better than that.
“We have a lot of ideas, a lot of solutions to those issues that will take some work and that’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to put those solutions in place and trying to do as many of them as we can do in the two months we have.
“The only thing I regret about debate is when it’s done in a way that misinforms the people. I think we’ve had a lot of misinformation. Let’s center on the facts and not try to mislead people about what the issues are. We’re going to continue to give people the truth about what we’re doing. I trust the people of West Virginia to sort through the rhetoric. I think they’ve shown they are tired of the status quo.
“People want a change and we’re giving them a change,” he said. “When you sit down and explain why we believe these things are right for West Virginia, most of the time they agree.”
Armstead said he can’t think of any legislation that has generated more misinformation than the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, House Bill 4012.
The bill, which he sponsored, passed the House 72-26 on Feb. 11 and is now in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Some of the bill’s opponents claim the legislation would allow discrimination against gay and lesbian people.
“It has nothing to do with discrimination,” Armstead said. “It deals with what happens when an individual citizen finds that their religious beliefs are being infringed upon by a government action. That’s what this bill is, plainly and simply. Read the bill and you’ll see it does exactly what I’ve said it does.
“Why is there all of this misinformation? Because people want to make this something it isn’t,” he said. “They want to imply it has a motive it doesn’t have.”
Some other bills likely to make headlines:
* The so-called “brunch bill,” which would allow the sale of alcohol beginning at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday. Current law prohibits sales before 1 p.m.
The West Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association says the legislation would boost the economy but Armstead said, “I’m concerned about taking up a lot of time in the next few weeks on something that I don’t agree would have a substantial positive impact.”
* A bill that would give nurse practitioners and advanced practice registered nurses expanded authority to provide primary care. The legislation is backed by nurses and the AARP but is opposed by many others in the medical community.
Armstead said he views the issue the way he looked at efforts in past years to change the scope of practice of dental hygienists and optometrists: “We want to make health care as accessible as we can make it, especially in rural areas, but we have to balance that against making sure anybody who goes out as a medical professional has the training and experience they need to ensure the safety of our citizens.”
* The Governor has proposed raising the state tax on a pack of cigarettes from 55 cents to $1; some other Democrats have proposed raising the tax by $1, to $1.55.
Armstead said what happens to the tobacco tax will be part of the larger budget discussion.
“First, we’ve been looking at where we can move money from certain accounts to fill budget holes,” he said. “Second, we know there are some areas where we can cut. Our caucus has said we don’t want to increase taxes until we do those two things.”
Armstead said he can’t predict the tobacco tax outcome but “it’s only one component of the budget, which includes shifting funds, cuts, and looking at closing loopholes.”
* The West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association says the industry needs pooling legislation, which would in some circumstances allow companies to force uncooperative mineral owners to sign a lease.
“I think we’re seeing concerns about individual property rights being heard” this session, Armstead said. “I think we’re moving away from the pooling concept. There are some other solutions that may be more respectful of individual property rights.
“I doubt a pooling bill will come out. But I think there will be some other legislation that will have much broader support, that will work to take advantage of the opportunity we have in our energy industry while at the same time doing it in a way that is responsible to our environment and to individual property rights.
“I’ve been very encouraged where these discussions have gone over the past couple of weeks. I think we’ve gone from what I considered last year very emotional, passionate positions on both sides where there was very little common ground to, in the last few weeks in particular, a lot more common ground.
“I think even some of the individuals who feel most passionate about protecting property rights will support this legislation.”
Although many were frustrated when a pooling bill died on the last day of the session last year, “that was a good process to go through,” Armstead said, adding, “not every issue can be solved in 60 days.”
The Speaker said he’s proud of the Republican caucus and the Legislature as a whole for being courageous and bold.
“No one can deny this Legislature has worked hard,” he said. “In past years we would get here and have a couple of weeks having a fairly light schedule and maybe some presentations. We would never get into the meat of the issues until maybe the middle of the session. We didn’t do that this year or last year. We started the first week we were here taking up significant bills in the committees.”
Although the session’s long days can be tiring, “there’s an adrenalin to it as well,” Armstead said. “Whether Republican or Democrat, they’re here because they want to try to move our state forward. The more significant issues you take up and the more you allow debate on those issues, the more energy there is in the process. That’s what we need: More passion, energy, ideas and solutions. I think we’ve brought this to the process more last year and this year than I’ve seen in my 19 years here.”
Armstead said he’s fortunate he can go home at the end of long days, see his family and sleep in his own bed — something legislators from the panhandles can’t do when there is weekend work.
“I think it goes back to the fact that the people who sent us here are hurting,” he said. “They have challenges they are facing.” Serving in the Legislature “is a sacrifice for all of the members but it is a small sacrifice if we solve these issues.”
Armstead said that when he was in the minority, “fighting a lot of things I didn’t think were good for West Virginia,” a 60-day session seemed long. But “when you have an opportunity to set the agenda and try to get things moving that you think will move the state forward, 60 days seem like a couple of weeks.
“I’m just saying you have to put every ounce of energy and time into every one of those days because the consequences are serious.”
By George Hohmann