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Several lawmakers called the just completed legislative session historic, while others are left with concerns over a focus on major economic development rather than helping working West Virginians.
Just moments after he struck the final midnight gavel ending the 60-day session, Speaker of the House, Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said passing the Third Grade Success Act was among the biggest priorities lawmakers accomplished. The speaker followed that thought with a profound overall session assessment.
“I’ll go so far as to use the word historic,” he said. “So in these last 60 days, we have divided and made more accountable the largest entity of state government in DHHR [West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources]. We have passed the largest tax cut and put more money back in the pockets of West Virginians than any legislature ever in history. We have restructured and reformed the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) and put it on a secure footing for the next generation of public employees and school teachers. And we’ve done all that while giving pay raises to our public employees and putting teachers aides in all first, second [and] third grade classrooms in West Virginia without raising $1 of taxes.”
From the Democratic side, House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, said while debate was less abrasive and more congenial than sessions past, he thought the allocations of a more than $1 billion state budget surplus were tilted too far away from the working class.
“We shouldn’t have had PEIA premium increases,” he said. “I mean, we have record surpluses and now we have record PEIA increases, tell me how that happens? We found a way to give pay raises to legislators, which I certainly do not support, pay raises to the governor, pay raises to everybody, and we’re gonna give increases to the PEIA recipients. It’s the one thing that they’ve held on to for years. We gave away hundreds of millions of dollars to potential projects and we ignored those who are actually here. They’re actually working and had been in West Virginia for many years raising their families. And we told them, ‘you’re getting the increase.’”
A year ago, members from both sides of the aisle dealt with troubles with foster care, a crisis CPS worker shortage and a Department of Health and Human Resources in disarray. House Health Committee Chair Amy Summers, R-Tyler, said the reorganization of DHHR, along with new initiatives and leadership, will lead to better outcomes for the health and welfare of the state’s most vulnerable residents.
“I’m just excited that we’re on a new path, we are going to come up with some solutions,” Summers said. “We feel that the DHHR division is really going to give us more insight and direction into those departments. I’m just excited about everything that’s happened this session and we’re going to continue to work hard. It’s just the first step. We’re going to continue to work hard to evaluate all of those different issues that we have during the interims that are coming up.”
House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, said while tax cuts and pay raises were welcomed by working West Virginians, he and others from both parties have grave concerns over slighting the crisis in state corrections – a 33 percent employee vacancy rate and more than $40 million spent on stop-gap National Guard jail and prison support.
“I wish we would have put more focus on public education and more focus on getting a cost of living adjusted for our retirees, and the one thing that we didn’t do is our costs in our jail system or in the corrections are just continuing to be a mess,” Skaff said. “You’ve got to focus on not kicking the can down the road with record surpluses. You can still do more until there’s no vacancies out there. I say, let’s keep working harder, we gotta fill all those public employee positions that are out there because they take care of our people of West Virginia. I’m glad we’re finally, after years, giving some of the money back to the West Virginians, and I’m okay with that. But I just think we need to get our house in order first before you give out the rest of the money.”
House Technology and Infrastructure Committee Chair, Del. Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, said he was disappointed in a lack of progressive legislation passed from his committee.
“There’s several pieces of cutting red tape or several pieces of legislation that did that in regards to infrastructure development,” he said. “There’s also been some bills relative to broadband that just didn’t make it across the finish line. It’s always a struggle, but we want to make our state the fastest place to deploy all infrastructure, especially in this inflationary environment.”
Nearly every delegate WVPB spoke with said much of the legislation passed was just a first step. Now, we will see in what direction those steps may head.