By Mannix Porterfield
Speaker Rick Thompson insists that partisan politics should play no role in the upcoming session, albeit the Democrats now own a mere 8-vote majority.
Republicans occupy 46 of the 100 seats, making them a force with which to be reckoned in the months ahead on occasions when they can attract Democratic support to swing votes either in committee or on the floor.
Even so, Thompson told reporters after the House opened the session that he enjoys a good rapport with Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, and gives him ample times to discuss issues in his office.
Evidence that the GOP has come close to majority status was apparent in the votes for the speaker’s post, when the two leaders kept swapping the lead as the members were polled before Thompson nailed down his fourth, two-year term.
Thompson issued a friendly overture to the Republicans in his acceptance speech.
“I truly believe in being bipartisan,” the Wayne County Democrat told reporters after the session.
“I’m everyone’s speaker. I truly believe that the people don’t want us to get up here and play partisan politics. They want us to get the job done for the people of West Virginia.”
Admittedly, there will be times when Democrats and Republicans will square off for a partisan-flavored showdown.
“I would be silly not to admit there are issues that bring out partisan issues,” he said.
“My job is to try to go through that and do the substantive issues. I think there are a lot of things we all agree on.”
Thompson said his door remains open to the Republican leader to discuss issues.
“We always try to listen to his caucus,” he said.
As for floor votes, he said there is no difference if the leadership prevails on a 54-46 tally, or a 65-35 one, if the vote comes along party lines.
“What we want to do is have votes out there that are 90-something to three or four,” the speaker said.
“I want agreement and consensus if we can. Now, if we have to make some tough decisions and we see it one way and someone else sees it the other, then we’ll make those tough decisions at the appropriate time.”
Looking ahead to the real start of work on Feb. 13, the speaker said he feels “very good about this session.”
“I think we’re on top of a lot of issues,” he said.
“I think we’re going to get a lot accomplished this session. I’m looking forward to it.”
First off, Thompson said he wants to make all the committee assignments, hopefully by the first of next week, once Armstead lets him know where GOP members want to serve.
“I think that’s one of the most important decisions that are made here,” he said.
“Most people don’t even think about it. If members aren’t placed where they want to be, or where their talents lie, then the session is less much productive. As hard as I can, I try to put members where they want to be and where they should be.”
Key issues looming include the education audit that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin ordered, spiraling drug abuse, and finances, and Thompson said his chamber is gearing up for the two-month grind.
“All the members, I think, want to come here and roll up their sleeves and work for West Virginia,” he said.
“I think all sessions are difficult and challenging.”
Besides the governor’s agenda, which Tomblin sets on opening day next month, Thompson said the House also plans to work on legislation recommended in the year-long interims meetings.
“Depending on what the governor offers, that will dictate some of the things we do, because we do prioritize his agenda as a high priority agenda and work through his issues,” he said.
Thompson said the House has achieved much the past six years with bipartisan work on the tough issues.
“There would be a few Democrat and Republican votes another way but they were all done with bipartisan support,” the speaker said.
“They were not accomplished with just D’s versus R’s.”
In advance of what Tomblin may advocate to improve education, Thompson named a special, bipartisan task force last month among his members to study the audit. Delegate Dave Perry, D-Fayette, a retired middle school principal in Oak Hill, is a member.
“What we want is to do the most we can to help our education system in West Virginia,” Thompson said.
“But I would be naive to say that we’re not going to be dealing with education every year. Every year I’ve been a member of the Legislature, we’ve dealt with education issues. We constantly strive to improve our education system in West Virginia and that’s not going to stop.”
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