Reporter’s Notebook: Lawmakers prepare for 2019

As we head into 2019, things are very quiet, as both the executive and legislative branches prepare their bills for the 60-day general session starting Wednesday, Jan. 9.

Reporters from around the state will get a sneak preview of some of the proposed legislation during the West Virginia Press Association’s Legislative Lookahead Friday, Jan. 4, at the West Virginia Culture Center. But I have a few predictions for what to expect.

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First of all, expect some of the first bills to be introduced by Gov. Jim Justice to be the 5 percent pay raise for teachers, school service personnel, and public employees, as well as the $100 million long-term stabilization funding for the Public Employees Insurance Agency. State workers, and particularly teachers, are keeping an eye on this.

I was told recently to expect a one-day work stoppage by teachers and school service personnel in January to remind lawmakers that they haven’t forgotten last year’s session and week-long strike. I’m doubtful this will materialize though, especially if the first bills out of the gate are the raise and PEIA funding.

Two back-to-back 5 percent pay raises in two years is unheard of in the private sector, and I have to imagine that parents are not going to have the same sympathy for teachers they had last year. I also think that even some of the teachers and public employees are getting tired, as the numbers that came out for election rallies in October were small, the November elections only saw marginal pickups by Democratic candidates, and the crowds at the PEIA Finance Board public hearings were small (except for the Eastern Panhandle hearing, where the border county issue is a big deal).

Where I see teachers’ unions spending most of their time on is making sure the legislature fixes the long-term funding issues that could force premium increases after fiscal year 2021. A PEIA Task Force formed by Gov. Justice has a subcommittee looking at statutory changes in state law to make reforms easier without hurting state employees. Republican lawmakers are not going to want to dedicate specific tax funding for PEIA, but they might increase the line item for PEIA in the budget to receive more money from general revenue.

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Speaking of education, there might be a trade-off for passing another pay raise and PEIA reform. With brand new chairs for the house and senate education committees, expect some education reforms that teachers’ unions find controversial. The proposals could include allowing charter schools, locality pay, or creating education savings accounts.

Teachers’ unions obviously don’t like anything that takes funding away from public schools. They also don’t like anything that makes one part of the state less equal to another, even if there is more demand for qualified teachers (such as the Eastern Panhandle). According to a study by Education Week, per-pupil funding in West Virginia is $12,993, which is just above the $12,526 national average.

Based on the comments I heard last month at a state Board of Education meeting, school officials aren’t the biggest fans of those who put their kids in private school or home school. With that said, this is a state that brags about our public high school graduation rate, even though the Department of Education’s own data shows very few of these graduates spend much time attending high school and many go right into remedial education in college.

I’m not endorsing any of the education reforms I mentioned above, but perhaps we at least need to be throwing things at the wall to see what sticks.

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Now, here are some things I think will be brought up in the next legislative session but won’t actually come to pass.

First, don’t expect any repeal of the business and inventory tax. Should it be removed? Not my call, but we’re one of the few states that has this kind of tax. The issues with removing this tax include the fact it’s embedded in our state constitution and counties and school systems rely on it.

Republican lawmakers love shaking their fists at this tax or creating committees to study it despite learning nothing they didn’t already know. Until you give counties the same freedom to tax like cities currently do with home rule, this issue will always be dead in the water. The dirty secret is some counties don’t want the power to levy taxes, as it gets them off the hook with voters.

Another dirty secret in getting rid of the business and inventory tax: the difference would have to be made up. The hope lawmakers have by removing the tax is that businesses expand their operations, meaning more property tax revenue and more employees contributing to the tax base. Right now, the state needs more businesses and industry to come and current industries to expand, because our good tax revenue numbers are coming from road and pipeline construction. Once those projects are done, that revenue will evaporate.

Lastly, I wouldn’t hold your breath for an intermediate court of appeals. Yes, there will definitely be reforms to the state supreme court this session and the legislature will finally have some say over the high court’s budget. An intermediate court will be part of that, but supporters are still going to have to show a need for it.

My understanding is that the court can hear more cases than they currently do. A lot of the spending issues at the court over the years has come more from an old adage: idle hands are the devil’s workshop. They’ve simply phoned it in over the years, turning over more administrative work to staff. Some of the appeals they write memorandum decisions on could be heard.

I’m not against an intermediate court, but let’s make sure our supreme court actually needs that extra layer. I’d much rather see an online system in place to search court records and dockets for county circuit courts and supreme court cases similar to the PACER system the federal courts use.

Whatever happens in the legislative session in 2019 and beyond, I look forward to keeping you informed. Have a happy new year.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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