The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

April 16, 2013

Freshman class of legislators looks back, ahead

CHARLESTON — Chris Walters arrived in the Senate with no experience under the Capitol dome.

That doesn’t mean he didn’t know his way around, however.

Just across the rotunda, his father, Ron Walters, is a member of the House of Delegates.

“We’re the first father-son combination in the history of West Virginia to serve at the same time,” Walter said.

And the fatherly advice certainly came in handy for the novice senator.

“Being able to pick up the phone, call him, find out what’s going on over in the House, what to look for, telling him what’s coming over from the Senate, has really been a great part of the process and helped me really learn quickly and see what’s going on,” he said.

The senior Walters imparted one major tip: Make sure he knows what the bills contain and learn as much as he can.

Young Walters is one of eight freshmen in the Senate, a group evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Five of the freshman class of 2013 had experience in the House.

Sam Cann, D-Harrison, spent 18 years as a delegate before moving on.

“It’s very different,” he said. “I enjoyed my years in the House. I really enjoyed the people and the process from that point of view. Now that I’m over here, I told somebody the other day, it’s almost like I was at a disadvantage to the other freshmen, because I knew one way to do this and over here they do them so much differently.”

One sentiment the newcomers share — the Senate is a more congenial chamber, with little partisanship that often fuels hard feelings over issues.

“The fact that there are fewer people, we do spend more time together,” Cann said. “We do have the room in the back of the chamber (the Junior Lounge) where we have lunch there many days. Regardless of party lines or affiliations, people mix and get to know each other. You get to know more of our members on a percentage basis, up close and personal. And that’s really neat. I think it helps the process. It helps us work through differences a little easier. That is a good thing.”

Like others who came from the House, Cann relishes the more relaxed atmosphere.

“On the other side, there’s a lot of pressure to stick to your party line, and if you don’t, there are consequences,” he said.

On many Senate votes, Cann pointed out, party affiliation isn’t a factor.

Overall, the process parallels that of the House, but Sen. Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming, sees things as vastly different. From a personal perspective, his boundaries expanded.

“I’ve picked up 80,000 people in Raleigh County that I haven’t had before, so that’s been a big adjustment,” he said. “My workload has increased a lot. I’m on more committees now. There are only 34 of us, so it seems like you’re stretched really thin. But the good is that things are easier to get done for me over here than it was in the House.”

Depending on the issue, Hall says he can go directly to a committee chairman.

“It’s very partisan in the House,” he said. “Both parties are guilty of putting people on the spot on votes. Sometimes it’s kind of a ‘gotcha’ attitude over there. They know they can get you. Over here, it’s more congenial and we try to work it out. We don’t always agree completely, but try to work out a compromise. That goes a long way toward getting legislation.”

Even before he took his oath, Hall was advised to expect a different climate in the Senate, and that proved true.

“The Senate is different,” he said. “We may disagree, but we’re still friends. People try to treat each other with respect and a congenial attitude. We’re here to govern and represent our districts and not be petty, not be childish. I think we should try to rise above all that for the good of West Virginia.”

Hall had his share of disappointments in his maiden voyage in the Senate, largely the inability to see dollars targeted for some key road projects in the 9th District, such as the Coalfield Expressway and the King Coal Highway.

“Overall, I don’t think we’ve done enough to push the economy forward,” he said.

“Have we had a bad session? No. We haven’t done any harm to the state. We just haven’t done enough to spur the economy.”

Three Republican newcomers — Mitch Carmi-chael of Jackson County, Craig Blair of Berkeley and Bill Cole of Mercer — share Hall’s sentiments.

Cole, an automobile dealer, said his most frustrating overview was the Legislature’s failure to produce any single legislation “that substantially would change whether a business would consider coming to West Virginia and locate.”

“We didn’t have one tort reform bill,” he said. “We didn’t have one jobs-friendly bill that I can name, at least not of any substance. The good news is that we probably didn’t pass any bad legislation. But the bad news is we didn’t pass any good legislation. So, I should be happy.”

Cole hailed the education reform package as one that contains some positive steps.

“But we didn’t have a thing in that bill to change the fact that our kids are 48th,” he said. “Nothing in that bill is going to move us from 48th or 47th to 30th or anything.”

Just as troubling to Cole was the failure to seriously address the top-heaviness of the education bureaucracy, at a time West Virginia’s system is deemed the most lopsided in the country.

“As a matter of fact, I see it getting heavier,” he said, pointing to the hiring of another bureaucrat at a six-figure salary, during the debate over the bill.

Carmichael said he remains “frustrated with the whole process,” although moving to the Senate was a breath of fresh air, because “it’s much more collegial.”

“Everyone would agree there’s more opportunities for the whole body to get together and work things out,” he said.

“A lot of times, without the acrimony that’s on the floor. That’s what I see as a big difference. There’s a real effort to avoid that here.”

Carmichael feels the Legislature is fumbling the ball on real improvements in West Virginia.

“We began 2013 with fewer jobs than we had in 2012, and we haven’t done anything to fundamentally change that, which is the essence of every social ill that you can point to in West Virginia — the lack of jobs and opportunity,” he said.

“The frustrating thing about it for most of us is we know what it takes to change. It’s been studied. We’ve got reports. We do study resolutions all the time. We know exactly what it takes. But there’s just no political will to fundamentally move forward because of special interest groups.”

Blair endorsed that belief, saying business got nothing in this session.

While the two haven’t always seen eye to eye, Blair applauded Majority Leader John Unger, a Democrat in his home county, for inaugurating the Feed to Achieve legislation in an effort to rescue children from the throes of poverty.

“But if we want to fix that, what we need to do is be able to give every West Virginian a job,” he said. “And when you do that, you solve the issues with the poverty. The list goes on and on. Prisons, education. Education is a big one, and that’s a big miss this year also. Once again, we’re nibbling around the edges on education when we need real reform.”

Blair says the system attempts to put every student on a college campus but should emphasize the value of vocational education.

“We need plumbers, we need electricians, we need people that can do video,” he said. “The dropout rate and drug usage rate coincide together right at that point in time.”

To spawn new jobs, Blair said the Legislature should have focused on eliminating the personal property tax on equipment and machinery, along with the business franchise tax, and lowering the corporate net tax below the national average.

“We’ve got the fattest poor people in the state,” he said. “Why is that? You would think if you were poor, you wouldn’t have any weight at all. It’s because they’re not going to work. And that hurts their pride and self-respect. Giving everybody an opportunity for a job will change everything in West Virginia, including our drug culture.”

Two legal minds were part of the freshman class.

For precisely 20 years and 23 days, Donald Cookman, D-Hampshire, was a circuit judge in the 22nd Circuit, embracing Hampshire, Hardy and Pendleton counties.

“Looking at the Legislature from afar, I didn’t realize how difficult a task it is and how much work was involved,” the former judge said. “If you take it seriously, and I find that all my colleagues do, that it is a very time-consuming and very arduous task.”

Cookman, like Walters, has a familial tie to the Legislature. His father, James B. Cookman, serv-ed in the House in the 1960s and 1970s, “so I had a little experience from that,” he said.

“It’s even more partisan over there now from what I hear than it was then,” he said. “Over here, from my limited experience, it seems like everybody is very cordial. We have differences of opinion, obviously, but they’re generally able to be worked out in a friendly manner. And even if we disagree, once we step outside, we shake hands and just go on to the next subject. Everybody takes it seriously and is very sincere in trying to do the best thing for the state and their particular constituents.”

Given his background, Cookman was keenly interested in court-related legislation.

“I’ve been told you should never be married to any particular legislation and don’t take it too personally when it gets lost in the shuffle, or get defeated,” the senator said. “So, I’m trying to take that advice and follow that. Sometimes, it’s a little difficult. It happens to everybody.”

The other legal mind belongs to Rocky Fitzsimmons.

Actually, the first name of the senator who succeeded Orphy Klempa is Robert.

But when he arrived in 1979, the boxer movie series “Rocky” was popular, and the senator suspects his father was a big fan.

Fitzsimmons landed his seat via gubernatorial appointment, the day after Christmas, and while he had no legislative experience, he does have a law degree — a plus, when you consider all the legal language in every piece of legislation.

“I knew that coming in, that on the issues, and about reading and interpreting statutes, I might have been a little bit ahead of the curve,” he said. “But what I didn’t appreciate was the tremendous amount of time and effort that goes into learning the procedure and finding the resources. And there’s a pretty steep learning curve on that side. I found that to be surprising.”

Fitzsimmons enjoys the closeness of being a senator. “From what I’ve observed and what I hear, I think this is a much more tight-knit group here in the Senate,” he said. “There’s certainly a tremendous amount of camaraderie.”

His keenest disappointment was the failure to enact a bill expanding the Ohio County Tax Increment Financing district by 200 acres to allow funding for a second interchange, since there exists only one route of ingress and egress.

Next year, he says, that will be a high priority for him.

If he ever tires of helping pass laws, or practicing law, Fitzsimmons can always work at two radio stations he owns — AM-1600 WKKX in Wheeling and AM-1370 WVOY in Moundsville.

“So, I’m a big fan of the media,” he added.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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