CHARLESTON — History has a way of repeating itself. In 1933, when the Democrats took over both chambers of the West Virginia Legislature, Republican M.Z. White, Senate president, took a seat in the minority.
This year, it was the Democrats’ turn to yield, and Sen. Jeff Kessler took a seat on the floor as his party’s minority leader.
Sen. Bill Cole, R-Mercer, stepped up to the podium last occupied by the Marshall County Democrat. Cole was elected to the Senate in 2012, after two years in the House of Delegates, an appointee of then-Gov. Joe Manchin.
Cole, who had an aggressive agenda during the election, matched it during the legislative session.
The first 15 bills introduced in both chambers dealt with tort reform, repealing alternative and renewable energy standards, repealing prevailing wage standards and allowing public charter schools.
“I always set pretty high goals,” Cole said. “Did we leave stuff on the table that I think would have been good for West Virginia? Absolutely. Would it have been physically impossible to add anything more? Probably so.”
The self-described optimist said he tends to be a “glass half-full person,” but in this case the glass is three-quarters full.
Not surprisingly, Kessler has a different opinion of the session.
“It was a very divisive session where we accomplished very little,” Kessler said. “When we came into the session, there was open anticipation that there would be initiatives concerning jobs, highways, road funding, things that would address workforce participation.”
Kessler said there were no real jobs initiatives, although “there was some tort reform stuff they say set the groundwork for more jobs. Whatever.”
The big economic development announcement came not from Republicans, but from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who announced during the session that Proctor & Gamble is planning to build a 1 million-square-foot plant in the Eastern Panhandle, bringing more than a thousand construction jobs initially and hundreds of permanent jobs.
“Proctor & Gamble did not decide to build here based on whether or not we had nonpartisan election of judges,” Kessler said.
In the next election, judicial candidates from the Supreme Court to Family Court will not be identified by party on the ballot thanks to legislation passed this year.
Cole points out that before Republicans came to Charleston to open the session, they had to figure out staffing, office assignments, committee assignments, committee chairs and managing the flow of business from day to day.
“We’ve never done that before; we’ve never seen it done,” Cole said. “It just always happened behind the magic curtain.”
But Cole said the GOP senators trained hard and learned to run the floor sessions.
“The lift between Nov. 5 and Jan. 14 was incredible and I think we pulled it off,” he said. “Rather than managing to a deadline, we managed to workflow, and unlike legislatures past, including last year’s, we didn’t lose bills on the last night because we ran out of time.”
But bills did die in the House of Delegates because of timing issues, bills that Cole and the Republicans had pushed for mightily in the upper chamber.
Among them, Public Charter Schools and the study, but not repeal, of Common Core standards.
Cole ended up agreeing that Common Core standards should not be repealed, not only because an immediate repeal would cost the state upward of $128 million, but because of the potential detrimental effect on high school students.
He said to change standards now would mean that some high school students would have been taught under four different content standards throughout their public school careers.
“How can we keep teaching to a different standard four times in 12 years and believe that we’re going to have proper student achievement?”
Common Core, which teaches to college- and career-ready standards, has become a divisive issue among educators and politicians alike. The nationwide standards would allow students in a mobile society to be taught to the same standards regardless of where they live.
Politicians did not like the national standards, saying it was federal government overreach into education, a state and local responsibility. Also, student test score aggregation bothered some people because of privacy issues.
While the Senate bill changed repeal to a two-year study of Common Core, hardliners in the House would not accept anything less than outright repeal.
Those hardliners — in the House they call themselves the Liberty Caucus — are increasing in numbers in statehouses across the country.
Both Cole and Kessler hope the tea party trend doesn’t become the majority in the Republican Party.
“I hope not,” Cole said. “Because they are, from so many of the examples I saw, they are so unyielding and so unwilling to consider somebody else’s position.
“I think the extremes of either party are not good for our state,” he continued. “I think the extremes on both ends tend to be very close-minded to a middle of the road solution, so it’s hard to talk to them.”
Yet, Cole said, even those extremes should have a voice in government. And he respects those on the far right who want to live with a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.
He said a bill that would have West Virginia become part of a growing movement for a convention of states to propose a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget has merit.
“If we don’t do that, we’ll be done; our country will be done and all this will be for naught,” Cole said. “(But) we can’t just pull the plug and say we’re going to be a balanced budget nation. Too many millions of people draw a government paycheck. You can’t do it overnight.”
Kessler said he sees a more rightward slant, even in the Senate where most of the time a more middle of the road philosophy prevails.
“Everything this year was not just try to fix it, it was let’s repeal it,” he said. “Harmful, mean-spirited stuff that reduced access to the court, reduce the wages of the workers and bust unions and try to consolidate power.”
Because of that focused drive to repeal instead of fix, Kessler said some of the GOP’s big ticket legislation “crashed and burned.”
High on that list was forced pooling, which would have allowed gas drilling companies to take gas from a mineral rights owner if 80 percent of the owners in the block had agreed to sell. The bill did offer the resistant landowners some options.
In an ironic twist, the far-right Liberty Caucus voted with Democrats against the bill because of property rights issues. The vote resulted in a tie, which killed the legislation.
Cole calls forced pooling “lease integration,” and said it helps West Virginia take advantage of the “next God-sent opportunity — natural gas.”
The two also agree that teachers in the state should make more money, but differ in how to go about making that happen.
Kessler moved to amend a bill on the floor to give teachers an across-the-board additional $2,000 a year.
Cole said the move was “disingenuous” since Kessler knew the struggling budget could not stand an additional $58 million expenditure.
“If he felt that strongly about it, I might ask why it didn’t happen during his watch,” Cole said. “It was during their watch we decided if you were a state worker or a teacher or a corrections officer or work in the forensics lab — they should take a vow of poverty. We underpay all those people.
“We need to pay people what they’re worth.”
Cole said it was easy for Democrats, in the minority, to vote for a teacher raise and know it would fail.
“Well, I wanted to vote for it, too,” he said. “I just knew we couldn’t pay for it.”
In an atmosphere of an economy barely recovering from a recession and state government still living with three years of budget cuts, tax hikes are anathema.
But Kessler pushed for one — a $1 tax on cigarettes. Kessler said that would have not only given teachers raises, but built a substance abuse treatment facility and the veterans’ home in Beckley.
Kessler also wanted to increase the sales tax by a penny and put the money into roads, a bill that he said never saw the light of day.
Instead, the Legislature commissioned a study on roads, which may duplicate the Blue Ribbon Commission Study already completed, but not yet released by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
Kessler said the governor doesn’t like the price tag that accompanied the commission’s report.
“It takes courage to raise taxes,” Kessler said.
Even Cole said that next year’s Legislature would have to consider floating a road bond to help the state pay for rapidly deteriorating roads.
“A big bond issue is probably going to be part of the solution,” he said. “Even at that, it won’t fix ‘em, but it’ll move a long way toward it.”
Cole said the move would create jobs — jobs for West Virginians. The Senate president said he expected able-bodied state residents who aren’t currently working to get the jobs road work would provide.
“We’d better be putting our own people back to work,” he said.
“I think there’s a lot of pride in West Virginia,” he said. “I think if given an opportunity to earn a day’s pay for a day’s work, I think they’ll do it in a heartbeat.
“We’re going to figure it out.”
Finally, Cole and Kessler agree on one more thing.
Both are considering a run for governor in 2016.
Cole said people have asked him to make a bid for the executive branch, but he’s been focused on the task at hand instead of a future election.
“It’s about how I feel I can make a difference in public service,” he said. “It’s also how a lot of other people feel whether I could be effective or not effective.”
Cole said he’ll consult with his family.
“I have a lot of things to still puzzle through,” he said. “I’m straddling the fence.”
But Cole said his decision will be made in the short-term, rather than waiting until time to file for office because others are waiting in the wings to see what he does.
“I’ll figure it out sooner rather than later,” he said.
For Kessler, the time may be now. Thursday, he changed his candidacy status with the Secretary of State’s office from an undeclared candidate to a pre-candidate and is now forming an exploratory committee to run for governor, the Charleston Daily Mail reported.
“I think we need to have a new change in leadership with new energy and we need somebody who’s not afraid to be a Democrat.”
Kessler said it’s been a mistake for Democrats to shy away from their successes.
“Over the last several election cycles we’ve been ashamed and embarrassed to be Democrats,” he said. “We failed to tell the people the good things we’ve done and the bad things they’re promoting.
“If I think I can do it more effectively, I might just give it a shot,” he said. “More of the same isn’t going to get us very far.”
If both Cole and Kessler seek their party’s nomination for governor, it will leave senators seeking new leadership in both parties, where, at least for this session, Republicans were cohesive, even if reluctantly so, and Democrats were sometimes vocal, but often broke ranks.
Kessler himself voted with the majority nearly 90 percent of the time, where 55 Republican, 21 Democrat and 24 bipartisan bills passed out of the state Senate.
Kessler voted with seven of the GOP’s agenda bills, including the repeal of the Alternative and Renewable Energies Act, requiring CPR training in public high schools, alternative teacher certification and the nonpartisan election of judges.
His nay votes on those agenda bills numbered seven, as well, including votes against an audit of the Division of Highways, Public Charter Schools and prohibiting the Department of Environmental Protection from submitting a Clean Air Act plan to the Environmental Protection Agency without prior legislative approval. Kessler also voted against herd sharing and eliminating straight party ticket voting.
Repeated requests to interview Speaker of the House of Delegates Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, about the session were declined by his staff.
Likewise, House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, did not respond to a request for an interview.
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