Cole, Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, House Speaker Tim Armstead and House Minority Leader Tim Miley spoke at the West Virginia Press Association’s annual Legislative Breakfast at the Charleston Marriott.
“I think we’ve done more heavy lifting in the first three weeks than any session in recent history,” Cole said.
He said the Senate has already passed 20 pieces of legislation, including repeal of the 2009 law requiring utilities to use alternative fuels. The Legislature also has taken up many complex issues including charter schools and prevailing wage.
The student achievement level in West Virginia is unacceptable and “we’ve got to try to do things differently,” Cole said. He noted that 42 states and the District of Columbia have charter schools, which offer more flexible rules, “and West Virginia does not. We intend to change that with good legislation.”
Cole said he has long been in favor of repealing the state’s prevailing wage law.
“I just think it’s a bad law,” he said. “The problem is we’ve abused that law in West Virginia to the point it’s an unfairly high wage that is supported by you, the taxpayer.
“That’s the connection I want to make sure everybody gets. I’m not against paying high wages. I want a lot of jobs in West Virginia and I want great-paying jobs in West Virginia. But this one is wrong and it has been abused and we need to fix it. We’re going to roll up our sleeves and try to get something that’s good for everyone involved in the process but more importantly that’s good for the taxpayers, the citizens.
“Just because we have the votes to ram something through, that isn’t the way it’s going,” Cole said. “We want everybody to have a seat at the table. I think we’ve demonstrated that. And if we don’t get it right, we need to back up and fix it. But let’s move forward. Let’s do something different if we truly want to effect change.”
“So sometimes government does need to step up to the plate. Government has a role. Folks say, ‘Government, keep hands off.’ My goodness, you can’t. Sometimes it’s our job to have our hands in.
“You hear some folks say, ‘You’ve got to run government like a business.’ The government isn’t a business,” Kessler said.
“The guiding principle of a business is profit. There’s no money-making in education. Does anybody here make money in education? Heck, no. We’ve got to deliver that service. We’ve got to provide healthcare, we’ve got to provide roads. We’re not making money on roads. We’ve just got to get them fixed. It’s not a business but the people depend on it.
“I see things I’m worried about coming down the pike,” Kessler said. “They’re getting introduced and they’re getting ram-rodded through and it’s going to hurt the people of this state. My job is worrying about business but I’ve also got to worry about people. That’s my role, my job — what effect does legislation have on the people of this state?
“You’d think for goodness sakes we’d have learned our lesson last year. We had a water crisis within the first nine days of the session. Now there’s a bill being advanced to water down the water protection bill all in the name of, ‘Well, it’ll be good for business.’ I don’t know if it’s good for business if people can’t drink the water.
“You’ve got to watch that legislation,” Kessler told the room full of journalists. “It’s wrong to try to give people the ability to weaken the water standards of this state.”
Kessler noted the Republican effort to repeal or modify the state’s prevailing wage law.
“This state has the lowest per capita income and we’re going to pass a law that drives wages down further!” he said. “The real issues are dealing with workforce development. I haven’t seen anything about that yet.”
In a speech to the journalists later in the morning, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said he has worked hard over the last two years to make sure West Virginia workers have the skills they need for good-paying jobs.
Tomblin said he’s worked to get returning veterans involved in workforce training programs and “we have a real problem with our laid-off miners. The good news is there are millions of dollars available for retraining. The problem is getting these people involved in these programs.”
Tomblin unveiled a video, “My State. My Life. WV.” He said it is designed to get young people interested in pursuing a career path.
“One thing I find completely unacceptable is our 18- to 25-year-olds are the largest group that are not in the classroom or the workforce. They’re out there doing nothing — or doing bad things.”
The video is available online at mystatemylife.com.
Kessler said the alternative fuels law that was repealed didn’t do anything and wasn’t going to do anything.
House Speaker Tim Armstead, R- Kanawha, disagreed.
“If you look at the evidence, you know that’s not true,” Armstead said.
The coal industry “has been under constant attack,” he said, and in 2009 the alternative fuels law was passed. That amounted to “piling on.” he said.
“What were we thinking? That’s one of the most outrageous bills I’ve seen in 16 years.”
By 2025 the law would have cost coal miners jobs and cost everyone in the state higher electricity rates, he said.
Armstead denied the Republicans are engaged in steamrolling. He noted that in recent years the party’s leaders have held a press conference at the beginning of every session to announce their goals for the session.
“It’s not steamrolling if you put an idea out on the floor of the House and Senate and allow it to be debated and amended, and then you have a majority of the votes to move forward,” he said. “I don’t think there’s been any major legislation we’ve done this year that we didn’t have bipartisan support.
“When you’re doing changes that are meaningful, you can’t expect to have 100 percent agreement.”
House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said Republicans talk about West Virginia’s bad business climate yet Senate President Cole brags about being a fifth generation West Virginia businessman. “When your own life defies your comments … ,” he said.
On the topic of education, Miley said while there’s a lot of talk about failing schools, the fact is there are many successful schools in West Virginia.
“To say we need to go to charter schools is like saying we need to go to a flea flicker (trick play) in a football game instead of focusing on blocking and tackling.
“We need to avoid doing things that create a disincentive for diversity,” he said.
He noted that the alternative fuels law was passed when U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was governor. He asked who really believes Joe Manchin would do anything to hurt the coal industry.
Furthermore, he asked, “What message are we sending” by repealing the law — that we’re not interested in advancing other forms of energy we produce?”