By Lawrence Messina
West Virginia lawmakers should prepare to tackle the state’s sprawling education system and debate the pros and cons of regulations in 2013, as topics emerge in the wake of last week’s election.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is preparing an agenda for the upcoming 60-day session, along with a new state budget, after winning a full four-year term. The Democrat defeated the GOP nominee, Bill Maloney, by about 5 percent of the vote.
But House Republicans have an agenda of their own, and believe Tuesday gave them the numbers to move it.
The GOP increased its ranks in the 100-member House from 35 to at least 44 delegates. They will likely gain two more seats after this week’s vote canvass. House Minority Leader Tim Armstead said their game plan covers four topics: taxes, education, infrastructure and the state’s court and regulatory systems.
Senate President Jeff Kessler also has his priorities for the session. But the Marshall County Democrat must first secure a new term atop that chamber. With parties in both the Senate and House of Delegates nominating leaders next month for the two-year 81st Legislature, Kessler saw the election test his coalition. And while Republicans picked up three seats there last week, Democrats still hold 25 out of the Senate’s 34.
The recent audit of West Virginia’s public schools is one topic that’s on the radar of Tomblin, Kessler and House Republicans. The wide-ranging review describes a low-performing education system rigidly controlled by a state-level bureaucracy and a thick stack of policy-directing laws.
Tomblin commissioned the audit, and is expected to act on some of its recommendations. He arranged for a series of public forums earlier this year to gather comments on the findings, and has asked the state Board of Education and groups representing teachers to weigh in as well.
Armstead said GOP delegates plan to target the red tape while doing more to ensure students receive at least 180 days of instruction each school year. He believes the election cleared a major hurdle from pursuing the audit’s findings by increasing Republican seats on the House Education Committee.
Chaired by a retired teacher and longtime union member, the committee’s 25 members included at least 14 with ties to the education system either directly or through their spouses. Three of these lost Tuesday, while three more did not seek re-election. Those defeated, however, included Minority Chair Walter Duke, R-Berkeley and a retired teacher.
“The House has been an obstacle to reform,” said Armstead, R-Kanawha and a committee member.
The Senate has appeared more receptive to school system changes, including those proposed by now-U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin when he was governor and Tomblin was the chamber’s longtime president.
“I think we need to make some education reform,” Kessler said. “I think that’s something we all can agree upon.”
Kessler has also supported the creation of an intermediate appeals court, and noted that he wrote the bill proposing one. Armstead said House Republicans consider a new court crucial to addressing business concerns about the fairness of West Virginia’s judiciary. But Tomblin has questioned the cost, and cited the Supreme Court’s recent revamping of its rules for handling civil appeals to answer critics. A lawyer like Armstead, Kessler said he’d rather give the rules time to see whether they work.
Armstead said GOP delegates will also propose amending the constitution to roll back taxes on such non-real estate property as business inventory and equipment. Though frequently targeted by business, attempts to loosen the constitution’s rigid control of these taxes have failed. As property taxes provide revenues to counties and their schools, replacing those dollars has been a key sticking point.
House Republicans plan to offer offsetting a rollback with tax revenues from the renewed drilling of underground shale deposits like the Marcellus for natural gas. But Kessler has already proposed depositing and then investing those severance tax proceeds for 20 years. The concept of such a “future fund” has gained ground among some lawmakers, and several of the candidates who won on Tuesday.
“I would be more inclined to pursue a future fund,” Kessler said.
Kessler is similarly skeptical of a House Republican plan to revisit the way the state funds its road needs, in part by including them in the general revenue budget. West Virginia now operates the State Road Fund, a separate section of the annual spending plan, to address those needs.
“We need a permanent, more dedicated funding source rather than just general revenue,” Kessler said. “We’re willing to explore anything, but at the end of the day you need a certain amount of money to maintain the services that people depend upon.”
The GOP’s House gains should also revive discussion of whether the state should assess whether legislation, from tax breaks meant to spur the economy to regulations overseeing workplaces and business practices, influence hiring or development. With Tomblin and Senate Democrats also talking about making West Virginia more business-friendly, Armstead said Republican delegates will push to require regular reviews of regulations and including a jobs impact statement with bills.
“When regulations are passed, you should look back and see whether they’re meeting the goal intended or are instead hurting” the economy, Armstead said. “They shouldn’t just be placed on the books and be left there forever.”