West Virginia lawmakers observe halfway point at legislative breakfast

Photo by Steven Allen Adams Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, talks about the status of legislation at the halfway point Thursday of the West Virginia Legislature. Leaders met with the press at the annual West Virginia Press Association Legislative Breakfast Thursday.

CHARLESTON — The 60-day legislative session that started Jan. 9 is halfway over, and the majority and minority leaders of the state Senate and House of Delegates took time Thursday to reflect on the last 30 days.

Legislative leaders joined reporters, editors and publishers for the annual West Virginia Press Association Legislative Breakfast Thursday morning at the Embassy Suites in Charleston.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, talked about the bills that have been passed by each chamber so far. The Senate has passed 67 bills over to the House, while delegates have sent 66 bills to the Senate.

Another nine bills have passed both chambers and await the signature of Gov. Jim Justice.

The biggest bill on the Legislature’s agenda, both literally and figuratively, is the Senate’s massive education reform package. Senate Bill 451 is in the House Education Committee after being passed by the Senate 18-16 Monday.

Photo by Steven Allen Adams House Speaker Roger Hanshaw makes a point Thursday at the West Virginia Press Association Legislative Breakfast Thursday.

Senate Republicans say the bill gives more flexibility to county school systems, more freedom and pay to teachers and more choices for parents. Democrats, joined by teacher unions and some county boards of education, say the bill includes anti-union provisions and could take more money out of school systems.

The House Education Committee has taken out the most controversial provisions in the bill, such as a nonseverability clause that could cause the entire bill to self-destruct if challenged in court, and a paycheck protection act meant to hamper the unions’ ability to collect dues. Other controversial provisions, such as public charter schools and education savings accounts, have been scaled back in the House version of the bill.

Hanshaw announced Thursday that there will be a public hearing on the education bill in the House chamber at 8 a.m. Monday. Hanshaw didn’t spend much time talking about SB 451 during the press association event Thursday, deferring to Carmichael. However, Hanshaw said the legislative process, including public hearings, helps lawmakers hear all sides of an issue.

“We know as a Legislature our primary responsibility is to reflect the concerns of citizens,” Hanshaw said. “I’ll take our process any day, because it gives our men and women who serve in the Legislature to be in touch every day with the people whose lives are impacted by the decisions we make as legislators.”

Carmichael said that many of the votes on bills in the Senate are unanimous and bipartisan, but he felt a conviction to push for comprehensive education reform no matter how divided the Senate was on the bill.

Photo by Steven Allen Adams Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, says the governor’s absence in the discussion on education has created a vacuum in Charleston.

“The things that really divide the body, those are the hard things to do,” Carmichael said. “The education of our children is a moral imperative. It should be morally convicting of us to witness an education system that does not put our children on par with the rest of the nation.”

The minority leaders of both the House and the Senate were complimentary of Carmichael’s intentions for education reform, but House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said he could not support many of the items in Senate’s original version of the bill.

“I do think there needed to be a little more effort to reach out to teachers and find out what their real problems are,” Miley said.

Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said the absence of Gov. Jim Justice from the legislative education discussion has created a vacuum in Charleston.

“Where is the governor? The governor should be here daily taking the bull by the horns,” Prezioso said. “You need that person at the top. What we’re trying to do is fragmented…I sort of feel disenfranchised when the governor comes to the Capitol and says, ‘they’re making a mess up there,’ then he leaves and goes back to the Greenbrier.”

Photo by Steven Allen Adams House Minority Leader Tim Miley speaks at the West Virginia Press Association Legislative Breakfast Thursday.

Some major bills are still pending in the opposite chamber. The House passed HB 2005, creating the Broadband Expansion Act of 2019 to help spur last-mile high-speed internet growth into rural communities. The Senate passed Senate Bill 1, creating a last-dollar-in community and technical college program to help create a trained workforce.

Hanshaw, who supports efforts to create a trained workforce, has been reluctant to fully embrace Carmichael’s free community and technical college bill in the past, but said the bill will likely be taken up next week by the House Education Committee.

“We are excited to join the Senate in taking steps toward workforce training in West Virginia,” Hanshaw said. “We know that for the first time in a few years we’re in an environment in which we have economic activity, and we have a demand for workers that exceeds supply.”

Leaders expect a balanced budget for fiscal year 2020 to be completed before the end of the 60-day session, but Prezioso said there is only so much money to go around despite record-breaking surpluses being collected of the last two fiscal years.

“We have to be cautious, I know we want to do a lot of things,” Prezioso said. “I know the governor in his State of the State had a laundry list and wanted to give everything to everybody…We have to be really cautious on how we spend the money and what we put into our base budgets.”

Miley said he’d still like to see a discussion started on legalizing recreational marijuana. With about a dozen states with recreational marijuana and Ohio recently having a referendum voted down, Miley said it’s only a matter of time before surrounding states legalize it.

“Five years ago, I’d never be up here saying that,” Miley said. “If we believe that’s where the future is heading, where do we want to be? I think we ought to at least explore it and discuss where we want to be on that issue.”