By Matt Young, WV Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — “Education is an economic-development tool.”
When the West Virginia Legislature opens its 2023 session next week, legislators can expect to hear that message from their leadership.
Members of leadership participated in a panel discussion with members of the media on Friday, as part of the WV Press Association’s annual “Legislative Lookahead.” Held at the Culture Center in Charleston, the Lookahead offered reporters an opportunity to hear from legislators and interested lobbyists just days ahead of the 2023 Regular Session.
The morning’s first panel – aptly named “Legislative Leadership” – consisted of Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley; House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay; and House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha.
Blair began by first thanking the media “for all you do for the State of West Virginia,” before moving right into education, saying, “Education is an economic-development tool.
“I, and the West Virginia Senate, are very interested in improving the economic conditions in the State for the people of West Virginia,” Blair said. “We’ve put a lot of effort into that over the last eight years, and we’re going to continue to do that.”
Blair praised Sen. Amy Grady, R-Mason, as first Education Committee Chair in more than a half-century to be employed as an educator.
“I believe that she is going to be one of the greatest assets in being able to get education correct for our students,” Blair said.
Blair said, “we have done just about everything we can do” for alternative education options, including home and charter schools, the legislature will “keep its eyes on that. … If anything needs to be tuned up to be able to address that, we will.”
After citing the state’s acquisition of several new businesses as proof that “We’re getting it right – we’re attractive,” Blair reiterated the need for education reform by saying, “We need to be able to make it so our teachers can do exactly what they were hired to do – teach.”
Blair then shifted topics, and spoke briefly about the recent developments affecting the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA). On Thursday, a Wheeling-area medical facility announced that it will discontinue accepting PEIA-insured patients as of July 1.
“Who didn’t see this coming?” Blair asked. “We did in the Senate. We passed a bill last year to do 110% of Medicaid payments – we passed that out of the Senate unanimously. And it sure looks like we’re going to launch the PEIA bill that we did last year that had the funding, so you don’t have the Wheeling Hospital up there doing what they’re doing.”
“If we don’t do something it is going to be contagious, mark my words,” Blair added. “That cannot happen. We have a duty to make sure that our state employees have quality healthcare.”
From there, Blair moved on to the Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR), explaining that the Senate is prepared to immediately introduce a bill which will seek to divide the department into “three more manageable components.”
“We’re going to get DHHR right,” Blair said, before adding that the DHHR’s current operating budget is nearly twice the size of the state’s general revenue fund.
“Last but not least,” Blair said, moving on to his final talking point, “is the flatline budget. When there’s a pile of money out there, there’s a feeding frenzy.”
“The money is not going to be spent willy-nilly anywhere,” Blair continued. “The reason why I say it like this is because human nature dictates otherwise.”
Blair further explained that the Senate plans to invest the state’s $1.9 billion surplus into areas that will benefit “our future,” noting that, “We’ve got a ton of one-time expenses.” After referencing “deferred maintenance” as immediate financial needs, Blair added, “We need to put money back into the pockets of West Virginians also – there needs to be a tax reduction. But that tax reduction can’t be to the point where we’re not sure that we’ll be able to pay for it.”
Next to the podium was Speaker Hanshaw, who told those in attendance, “The 60-day legislative session is an incredibly long two-months if you’re trying to keep something from happening, but it passes by incredibly fast if you’re trying to actually get something to happen.”
According to Hanshaw, the 2022 legislative session saw West Virginia transition into a more diversified economy. Hanshaw explained that, “We are no longer a single-focused economy that’s driven exclusively by severance taxes, driven by natural resources.”
“My personal priority – both for 2023 and my entire tenure of service in this legislature for as long as I’m here – will be continuing to diversify our economy, to create more opportunity for men and women who live in West Virginia, to create job opportunities for themselves and their families, and for those who’ve left our state to come back,” Hanshaw added.
Hanshaw expressed his belief that energy production and distribution must remain a priority in West Virginia. According to Hanshaw, however, the state must also embrace the idea of sourcing energy from non-carbon sources.
“We certainly want to continue to support our fossil industries here in our state,” Hanshaw noted. “But we want to play nationally and internationally in the economy. That’s our objective and our goal, and that’s my priority as a leader of a legislative branch. And to many players, that means sourcing non-carbon sources.”
Skaff, the panel’s final speaker, echoed many of the sentiments expressed by Blair and Hanshaw. As one of only 12 remaining Democrats in the 100-member House of Representatives, Skaff told reporters that his party is “ready to roll up our sleeves, put party politics aside, and work together for a common endeavor.”
“We might have a different way to get to the end result,” Skaff added. “But that’s the beauty of our state. Our job is to represent, and make sure that all voices are heard. We need leaders who are going to work together.”
After explaining the Democrat’s shared priorities regarding education and the budget surplus, Skaff spoke of the state’s foster care system as being an area of concern, saying, “Foster care legislation is a priority. Not only on our (Democrat) side, but on their (Republican) side too. We must stop kicking this down the road – we’ve got to fix this.”
According to Skaff, tax reform will be “the next topic to come up on day one” of the new session.
“We need to come together as one unified legislative body, regardless of whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, and figure out how we can give the most bang for the buck back to the people of West Virginia,” Skaff added. “The Democratic party is on board.”
The Legislative Lookahead was made possible through the sponsorship of AARP West Virginia, WVU University Relations, and the WV Press Association Foundation.
The 2023 Regular Session of the West Virginia Legislature is scheduled to begin on Wednesday, Jan. 11.