Democrats in West Virginia Senate announce legislative priorities
CHARLESTON — With Republican leaders in the West Virginia Senate talking about their plans for the next legislative session starting Jan. 9, Senate Democrats unveiled their priorities for the new year.
Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, issued a press release Wednesday with a shopping list of proposals that he thinks will have bipartisan support. Prezioso, serving his second term as the leader of the Senate Democratic caucus, wants to focus on initiatives that will help middle class families.
“We take the new majority leader at his word, that he wants to work with us, and we hope the session will focus on issues that help unite and advance all West Virginians rather than partisan bills that drive wedges not only in the Legislature but in our communities,” Prezioso said.
Education is a key part of the Senate Democratic plans for 2019. They support increasing pay for teachers, such as the 5 percent pay raise proposal that Gov. Jim Justice and Republican legislative leaders have promoted. This is on top of the 5 percent pay raise that teachers, school service personnel and public employees received earlier this year after teachers went on strike.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, announced Wednesday the appointment of Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, as the new chair of the Senate Education Committee, a move already garnering some attention from teachers’ unions traditionally aligned with Democrats.
Fred Albert, the new president of the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, raised concerns about Rucker’s stand on education and anti-vaccination initiatives.
“AFT-WV is always willing to work with any elected leader and give them a chance,” Albert said. “However, many of the initiatives that Sen. Rucker has supported in the past give us cause for concern. Homeschooling and anti-vaccination initiatives take the focus away from passing legislation that ensures a high-quality education for West Virginia’s children. The Legislature has a constitutional responsibility to provide a free, public education to our students and I hope Sen. Rucker will work with AFT-WV to make it the best education possible.”
Other education initiatives include continued improvement for health insurance benefits managed by the Public Employees Insurance Agency, reducing the class size in elementary schools and additional services for children 4 and under to prepare them for school.
Democratic senators also want to put more focus on mental health care and substance abuse treatment, an issue that Senate Minority Whip Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said goes hand-in-hand with education.
“We know that improving education outcomes is the long-term answer to West Virginia’s problems,” said Senate Minority Whip Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha. “But we also have to address the pressing issues that face our communities in the short term by addressing the drug crisis and bringing more opportunity to every county.”
On tax reform, Prezioso said the party priorities include eliminating taxes on Social Security benefits and creating an Earned Income Tax Credit for low-and-moderate income families.
According to the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, a liberal think tank, about 141,000 households would benefit from an Earned Income Tax Credit.
The caucus also would like to see a state bank to handle state debt and provide more access to credit for and capital for those wanting to start businesses. According to the Public Bank Institute, a state bank can make low-interest loans to students and entrepreneurs, and it can partner with other banks to provide a secondary mortgage market.
Only one state has a bank — North Dakota — but as of Aug. 15 other states are looking at legislation establishing a state bank.
Lastly, Senate Democrats want an independent redistricting commission to handle redrawing congressional and legislative boundaries after the 2020 U.S. Census. Previously, Democratic majorities in the Legislature controlled the redistricting process, but with Republicans in control since 2014, Democrats are concerned about gerrymandering.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 13 states use a non-partisan redistricting commission when drawing lines.
Prezioso also expects his caucus to have more input on Senate committees after picking up two seats during the Nov. 6 elections.
Democrats now hold 14 of the 34 seats in the Senate. He hopes that gives him more leverage and encourages Republicans to work in a more bipartisan manner.
“While these policy ideas are bold, they are not partisan,” Prezioso said. “In fact, I expect some Senate Republicans will support and co-sponsor every single one of these initiatives. I am hopeful that we can move together as a united Senate to address problems facing West Virginia.”