W.Va. lawmakers making plans for new session

SOUTH CHARLESTON – State lawmakers will have a variety of issues to face, from education to prison overcrowding to budgetary concerns, when the Legislature goes into session next week.

Delegates, senators, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and other state officials met with members of the press from around the state during the AP West Virginia Legislative Lookahead at Marshall University’s South Charleston campus Thursday.

Panel discussions included New Directions for Public Education in West Virginia; State Prisons, Overcrowded and Underequipped; Lunch with Governor Earl Ray Tomblin; the State Budget, including Medicaid and the Lottery; and an open forum with the House and Senate leadership.

Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said the upcoming session will be defined by three words.

“Money, money and money,” he said.

House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, said there will be 2,000-3,000 bills introduced this session.

“We will look at the issues,” he said.

Throughout the day, state officials talked about reductions in federal money for all states, how state departments will have to cut their budgets by 7.5 percent this year and how the budget surplus will not be as big as in years past.

Tomblin spoke about the state’s improved financial position.

“We continue to pay our bills on time; we are paying down our long-term debt and we are proud that we are continuing to lower our taxes,” he said. “We were the only state in the Union to address our OPEB (other post-employment benefits) problem which many other states face.

“We are four years off from paying off our worker’s compensation fund from the old debt and that will clear up some money in the years to come.”

The state’s food tax will be gone by July, the state is continuing to lower its business franchise tax and lowering its corporate net income tax, the governor said.

Because the state is doing well, the federal match rate on Medicaid has dropped from 75 percent to 72 percent with officials predicting a $200 million shortfall, but with less utilization of Medicaid services, that number will be around $140 million.

“That is why I have asked several of my agencies to make a 7.5 percent cut in their budgets,” Tomblin said. “The budget will be tight this year. We all knew this was going to be a tough year for us.”

Some departments, including education and law enforcement, are exempt from cuts. The governor said if the cuts were across all departments, it would have amounted to a 2 percent cut.

With lower coal severance tax coming in, gambling revenue down and Medicaid going up, Tomblin said the 7.5 percent cuts will be enough to get the state through the coming year.

Highways will need additional funding in the future to maintain the roads and bridges, Tomblin said.

The panel on prisons talked about whether the state should pay $150 million-$200 million to build another prison or look into alternative sentencing measures.

Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein said there are 5,400 prison beds full with more waiting. Many jails are filled.

“As a citizen, I would certainly rather see my tax dollars go somewhere else other than prisons,” Rubenstein said.

Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, said spending money on a new prison should be a last resort. In addition to building it, there would be continuing costs the state would have to cover.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said the state can enact other measures and still keep people safe.

Panel members talked about improving drug treatment programs and the need to change the mindset of incarcerating people who have done something wrong but were not dangerous to other people.

“It is a question of how to get people treatment and who needs to be incarcerated,” Rubenstein said.

Lane said he was not open to letting people out without a detailed evaluation, but said possession of drugs is different than committing a crime to fund a drug problem.

“We need to protect people from violent inmates,” Lane said. “You need to look at the individual cases and the crimes. It is an exercise in getting the biggest bang for the buck.”

The education panel discussed the changing ways children are being educated and the need to bring in qualified teachers and paying them a competitive wage.

“We are no longer saying learning starts in August and ends in June,” said Jim Phares, the new state Department of Education superintendent. “With technology, children are learning 24/7.”

Mandating education goals from the top on down will not work, he said.

“Local communities need to decide these things for themselves,” Phares said.

Terry Wallace, a senior fellow at the Institute for Innovation in Education at West Liberty University, said many schools’ curriculums are “too broad and too shallow.” He said problems need to be identified and focused on. Students who excel need to be encouraged and moved up if needed rather than sitting in school until they are 18 and can graduate just because it is time.

“We need to be teaching skills not to a test,” he said. “We know how to educate students; we just need the political will.”

The state budget panel discussed how West Virginia is an energy-producing state and weathered the Great Recession well; however, mining is seeing a decrease with 5,000 fewer mining jobs this year than the previous year. The coal severance tax was down 17 percent this year, officials said.

Although natural gas production is up, revenues have been down because of lower demand. Officials aren’t expecting lottery revenues to increase.

House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said he would like to see the state make changes to allow for more job creation to increase the state’s tax base and make the state more competitive.

“We have to have common sense in moving forward,” he said.