GOP leaders in Senate, House lay out agenda

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, and Republican lawmakers announce their legislative agenda for the 2019 session. (Photo by Steven Allen Adams)

CHARLESTON — Tax reform for seniors, expansion of high-speed internet and projects to grow a qualified workforce were among proposals promoted Tuesday by the Republican leaders of the West Virginia Senate and House of Delegates.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, held a press conference flanked by delegates and senators in front of the Senate Chambers.

Carmichael laid out four policy areas the Senate plans to focus on when the Legislature gavels in at noon today. These include roads and infrastructure projects, such as broadband expansion and secondary road maintenance, combating drug addiction, creating an environment for job growth and education reform.

The Senate’s education package will include a 5 percent pay raise for teachers, school service personnel and public employees, as well as $100 million for long-term stabilization of the Public Employees Insurance Agency. Included in that would be an enhanced compensation package for teachers in high-demand subjects, such as math and science.

The Senate also is considering the creation of the state’s first charter school initiative, as well as education savings accounts for parents to use for additional education services for students.

“Education reform will be a huge initiative for us,” Carmichael said. “We recognize our students are the most important aspect of our future in West Virginia. We want to empower and enable them to be all they can be and to achieve at the highest levels at it relates to their peers across the country and across the world. It’s critically important we provide them with a world-class education. We do that by investing in educators and reforming the school systems that we have in place.”

If a charter school bill passes out of the Legislature, it could be dead on arrival when it hits the desk of Gov. Jim Justice. When asked at a press conference Tuesday morning, Justice said he was unsure about education savings accounts, but he was definitely against charter schools.

“I’m not for that,” Justice said. “We’re striving to try to fix our public schools and our public education and pay our teachers what they ought to be paid and our service personnel and everything else. Until we get that on solid ground, I can’t possibly see us taking on charter schools.”

Carmichael, when asked about the governor’s remarks, said he is still 100 percent behind charter school legislation. He said West Virginia is an outlier, with 44 other states offering various forms of charter schools.

“We believe in empowering the teachers, parents and students with more flexibility and more options,” Carmichael said. “It drives competition in the system and raises the level of achievement for everyone. For those who want to defend the status quo and keep charter schools out of West Virginia, I think it’s the wrong approach.”

Hanshaw believes charter schools need to be part of the discussion on how to make education better in West Virginia. Pointing to the West Virginia National Guard’s Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy, Hanshaw said it’s one example of a charter school already working in West Virginia.

“I support any meaningful education reform,” Hanshaw said. “I support education reform that helps teach students.”

An area where the House and Senate leadership might differ is on free or reduced community and technical college. Carmichael proposed a bill last year that passed unanimously out of the senate, but never made it out of the house under former speaker Tim Armstead. Carmichael said the senate will pass it again this year but isn’t sure if the house will support it.

“I hope so,” Carmichael said. “No one should be kept out of the workforce or from obtaining a stackable skill set due to the financial constraints of the student. I’m sure our colleagues in the house will thoughtfully consider this.”

Hanshaw agreed in principal that a qualified, trained workforce is needed in the state for manufacturing job openings. But the speaker said a two-year degree isn’t always needed when all the worker needs is certification.

“We’re anxious to receive that bill this year because we want to look at it in the context of immediately employable skill sets,” Hanshaw said. “We know many of the jobs available to men and women here in West Virginia don’t necessarily requite four college education. They don’t even require two-year college education What they require is marketable skills.”

On the tax reform front, the two bodies plan to introduce legislation over the next 60 days to eliminate the personal income tax on Social Security benefits and improve the homestead exemption — both areas that could benefit seniors. They also want to take another look at phasing out the business and inventory tax in a way to not hurt county governments and school systems.

Additionally, Republican lawmakers plan to improve the Second Chance for Employment Act to help those who have committed non-violent crimes return to the workforce and reforms to the state’s foster care and adoption programs.