By Mannix Porterfield
New Senate President Jeffrey Kessler says the Legislature needn’t drag its feet this winter in dealing with the staggering liability of paying health care costs of retired West Virginia public employees.
What’s more, Kessler suggested Tuesday after guiding the Senate on his first outing as the president the debt might be only half of the projected $8 billion — red ink that is known in government vernacular as Other Post-Employment Benefits.
On other topics, Kessler insisted the Senate is unified after a summer-long jockeying that ended with his formal ascension as president, and that he hasn’t decided if he’ll retain all of his committee chairs.
While all Democrats voted for him in the floor showdown, Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, was once in the running to unseat Kessler.
Green chairs the Energy, Industry and Mining Committee, one that has gained more attention in recent years, given the Marcellus shale issue and more stringent regulations at the federal level on the coal industry.
“I’ll have to take a look at that,” Kessler, D-Marshall, said of Green’s leadership role.
“Some of my discussions with Mike in the past were that he would like to maybe move on to something else, anyway.”
Kessler told reporters he hasn’t made any final calls on any committee chairs.
In fact, he said all chairs are intact for now, since he re-authorized them once former Sen. Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, became governor Sunday.
Now that Tomblin has taken the oath and was replaced by former Logan County Commissioner Art Kirkendoll, he said, “The acting president vanished into thin air.
“No such beast will ever be seen again, perhaps in my lifetime, or anyone’s.”
Kessler’s title — as was Tomblin’s — bore the preface of “acting” for the past year.
A year ago, when Tomblin succeeded Joe Manchin as governor with his departure to the U.S. Senate, Kessler’s colleagues rewrote the script to create the office of “acting president.”
Acrimony lingered over the controversial change, often surfacing in stinging remarks on the floor.
Kessler and his majority leader, Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, spoke confidently Tuesday that all that is in the past.
“Now that the work begins, healing needs to occur in order to unite the Senate and focus on the work of the people,” Unger said.
“Right now, the body has spoken. We’re no longer in a transitional period. We’re now a full Senate with a full president.”
Kirkendoll invested 30 years in public service as a Logan County commissioner, and given that experience, Kessler said the new senator might want to serve on government organization.
And, with his roots in the southern coalfields, a natural fit could be on EIM, the Senate president said.
Kessler wants speedy resolution of two major issues — regulating the promising Marcellus shale industry, and resolving the OPEB debt.
A select committee today hopes to send out its long-debated bill, but whether Tomblin will call a special session next month remains to be seen. If not, action would be put off until the 60-day session opens in January.
Kessler spoke confidently of a bill to “protect the environment and create opportunities for investment, and wealth, and job creation here in the state.”
“OPEB is another one that needs to be done,” the Marshall County lawmaker said.
“It’s the last major piece of our financial puzzle for the state that’s not in order. We’re going to get it done.”
While the debt has been projected at $8 billion, Kessler said that it is based on an inflation rate of 10 to 12 percent, and if that is reined in, the liability could be halved. The major hangup continues to be an acceptable funding mechanism.
“We’ve dealt with a $4 billion debt before and we can do it again,” he said.
“We had a $4 billion one in workers compensation. We got it done.”
Kessler said he doesn’t intend to use the Senate presidency as a bully pulpit to drive legislation.
“I have great faith in my chairmans and members of the Senate to work bills in committee to work out reasonable compromises and to focus on and not to force anything down anyone’s throats they don’t want,” he said.
A third goal, in sync with Tomblin, is to reverse the out-migration of West Virginia school children once they graduate.
Considering that 60 percent of the budget is dedicated to education, Kessler said more opportunities must be created so they won’t leave West Virginia in search of careers.
“It’s a terrible waste of our budget and our resources,” he said.
Unlike the 2011 session, Kessler said he believes the Senate will be unified as it launches its work in January.
“They’re all good people in this Senate,” he said.
“We may have had some differences. I hope they’re behind us. The election was over yesterday. Now, it’s time to legislate.”
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