CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Job creation, workforce development and education were three of the hard-hitting points of Monday’s West Virginia Associated Press Legislative Lookahead event held in Charleston.
A gathering of media and industry professionals from across the state, the event sought to foster insightful conversation on what issues are expected to take high priority during the 2015 State Legislative Session.
Several key lawmakers participated in the “GOP Takeover” panel, which focused on the agenda of the new Republican majority in the state Senate. The discussion, moderated by Heather Henline, publisher of The Inter-Mountain newspaper in Elkins, included Senators Bill Cole, R-Mercer, the incoming Senate President; Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, the incoming majority leader; Daniel Hall, R-Wyoming, the incoming majority whip; and Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, the outgoing Senate President.
Cole opened the dialogue, stating “Jobs, by themselves, are virtually the solution to everything that ails us in this state.” Cole said that job creation is only possibly by creating a friendlier business climate, but the state also must be able to fill the created jobs with a strong, educated workforce.
“Jobs are the critical issue facing our state,” agreed Carmichael, adding that he does not believe there is “one silver bullet” to solve the problem. Carmichael listed tort reform, regulatory reform and tax reform as the three-prongs of West Virginia’s “stool” for economic development.
Each senator stressed the importance of bipartisan cooperation in the upcoming session in order to improve the business climate. All agreed that education and workforce development both play critical roles in a thriving business climate, and West Virginia is lacking in each area.
Kessler said that he does not feel that business tax breaks are an effective means of job creation, and does not intend to support additional business tax breaks this session.
He said that a study performed by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy revealed the previous breaks did not generate the job increases the Legislature hoped to see.
“Most businesses that want to locate and expand in our communities do it not necessarily only because of tax breaks, but because we have a quality, educated, sober workforce that they can rely on and depend on,” said Kessler.
Kessler said he hopes to work with his colleagues to address the low workforce participation across the state.
“We have to have faith in the future that if we provide an environment that’s conducive for business to be here, then it will come,” said Cole.
Cole cited the state’s dwindling population among one of the challenges facing economic development, stating, “We have to keep our kids home.”
With student achievement levels ranked among the worst in the country, each lawmaker agreed that the educational system needs a radical overall.
Hall said the economic and education struggles are connected, explaining that the economic and social conditions facing West Virginia families often result in teachers sacrificing instructional time to deal with students’ personal issues.
Cole called the education system the “fourth branch of government,” explaining that the Legislature funds the system’s operations, yet the educational system is not entirely accountable to the Legislature aside from limited reports.
“There are not easy answers, but I’ll tell you what, there is absolutely will on our part to dig in, make tough decisions and bring this along,” said Cole.