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West Virginia Senate leaders lay out legislative priorities

Senate President Craig Blair, left, and Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin. Members of the press and interest groups heard from state senators Tuesday during the first day of the West Virginia Press Association’s annual Legislative Lookahead. (Photos Provided)

CHARLESTON — Republican and Democratic leaders of the West Virginia Senate have big plans for a legislative session starting next week.

Members of the press and interest groups heard from state senators Tuesday during the first day of the West Virginia Press Association’s annual Legislative Lookahead. Normally an event held in-person in Charleston, the event was held virtually.

Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, was joined by several committee chairs and vice chairs Tuesday to talk about the plans of the larger Republican majority. During the November election, the majority grew to 23 seats, giving Republicans a supermajority.

Blair said Tuesday that he plans to let his committee chairs do most of the leading, focusing his time on managing action on the Senate floor.

“I have no intention of being the voice of the Senate,” Blair said. “My intention is to make it able to be a well-oiled machine that will be able to get legislation through a process, utilizing all the talent that we have in the Senate.”

This year’s legislative session will be different due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Public access to the State Capitol Building is restricted to appointment only. Blair said the Senate plans to make use of more video technology to stream meetings, allow participation by senators through video conference, and allow committee chairs to record videos in an effort to be transparent.

“When I say accessible, it’s going to be accessible digitally,” Blair said. “We currently already have the ability to testify in the committee, view what’s going on in the committees and in the Senate chambers. Accessibility will be readily available to all — the press, the public, whoever it may be.”

Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, said members of the Senate Democratic Caucus are going a step further and having virtual office hours, where constituents can schedule times to talk to their senators to discuss legislation and concerns. Baldwin is also concerned about special interest groups and lobbyists finding ways to meet with lawmakers outside the normal legislative process.

“We may see an uptick in evening events, where legislators are invited out,” Baldwin said. “We’re going to put forward a bill banning lobbyists taking legislators out for meals. We think that’s especially important now when access is going to be different than in times past.”

Blair said to expect a budget bill nearly identical to last year’s $4.574 billion general budget. So far in the first seven months of fiscal year 2021, the state is $173.8 million ahead of revenue estimates. Broadband expansion is a major priority this year, with lawmakers pledging $150 million over three years to fund expansion and planning legislation to make expansion easier.

Republican Caucus Chairman Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, said there are at least 125 new bills ready to be introduced this session dealing with government reform, judicial reform, education reform, tax reform, economic development, health and human resources, elections, agriculture, transportation and infrastructure, and more.

“We expect to hit the ground running, because we really don’t want to waste any time in this legislative session because we don’t exactly know what’s going to develop as time goes on,” Roberts said.

Senate Judiciary Committee Vice Chairman Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, said lawmakers would look at the state of emergency authority given to Gov. Jim Justice by state code and consider reforms that could keep lawmakers involved in the decision-making process. West Virginia has been under a state of emergency for nearly a year because of the coronavirus.

“What we’ve been hearing from our members and from members of the public … are looking at ways that we can improve upon and work on the Governor’s executive authority during a time of emergency,” Weld said. “How can we improve upon the Governor’s powers? How can we put some more of those powers into the Legislature’s hands just to kind of balance the power?”

With a supermajority in place, Republican lawmakers want to use resolutions to put constitutional amendments on the ballot to give the Legislature authority over taxation. They also want to phase out the personal income tax and follow Florida’s lead in increasing other taxes to capture revenue from tourists and visitors to the state. Blair said any phase out would have to be revenue neutral.

“It will be revenue neutral, because we have no intention of taxing the people of West Virginia more money,” Blair said. “In fact, we’re trying to make it so that it’s less. We have a rather large underground cash economy, then we also have of a booming tourism business. So, we can actually capture some of these revenues from people that are coming to visit the state and reduce it on our workers.”

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said her committee would look at ways to reverse the shortage of qualified teachers in the state, improve virtual learning options in light of COVID-19 and improve the state’s charter school law to allow for more flexibility in creating charters.

Baldwin said the Senate minority would support bipartisan solutions to issues, such as broadband expansion. Senate Democrats also support incentives for high school graduates to stay in the state, funding for dilapidated infrastructure, improving Medicaid reimbursement rates for hospitals, and the state’s continuing opioid drug crisis.

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