Economic development and education are two issues that loom large as legislators prepare for the 2023 general session. Leaders in the House of Delegates from both parties have different views on the varied priority issues that need to be addressed.
Speaker of the House Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said after landing Nucor’s Mason County steel plant and Berkshire Hathaway’s Ravenswood renewable energy industrial park, West Virginia must prioritize site development beyond simply having a big flat piece of land.
“It also means having adequate utilities, having adequate ingress and egress,” Hanshaw said. “We now know that the pressure to power your business on non-fossil, non-carbon energy sources is growing. It’s not just growing in West Virginia, it’s growing, certainly nationally, if not globally.”
House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, said his caucus is focused in 2023 on West Virginia’s existing businesses, especially small businesses. He said the majority of the state’s employed people right now work in small businesses with 50 employees or less.
“What can we do to help them? Are there payroll taxes we can forgive? Are there incentives for them to grow? Maybe we can’t afford to do a business inventory tax across the board for everybody,” Skaff said. “If you’ve been a business here for X amount of years, and you’re looking to expand, and you’re going to hire new people, maybe look at individual sectors of the market that we can help really grow.”
For public education, Hanshaw said the state needs to continue a course of action that provides adequate funding. The overall picture includes the refreshed educational structure demonstrated by Senate President Craig Blair’s education leadership changes, a legislative focus on non-traditional educational opportunities and acceptance of the Hope Scholarship program.
As demonstrated in the recently completed interim legislative session, Hanshaw said he will again push for his bill that funds first and second grade teacher aides. He said the program helps develop skill sets early on for the jobs and economy of the future.
“Training a workforce is an absolute imperative, we have to do it, it’s not an option,” Hanshaw said. “Making sure that the kids are able to read and do math at grade level is critical. I intend to put that bill back before the legislature again, come January.”
Skaff said the state can’t realize educational progress without a plan to recruit and retain teachers who are leaving in crisis numbers for better paying jobs elsewhere. He included teachers and nurses in a revamped tax incentive proposal.
“Why not instead of just doing across the board income tax reduction for everybody, how about no income tax, if you’re a nurse, or if you’re a teacher?” Skaff said. “Let’s look at ways that we can forgive their loans. If you become a nurse and you stay in West Virginia and practice for five years or X amount of years back. If you’re a teacher, you can go across the state line and make $10,000 more. What can we do to help offset that, maybe on the back end to incentivize them to stay in West Virginia or become a teacher here?”
Hanshaw said Republicans are looking at ways to re-regulate and rejuvenate the state’s forestry industry and manufacture more wood products in West Virginia. And, he said there is a dire need locally and globally to continue offering incentives for rare earth mineral extraction and production here in West Virginia.
“Today we rely on the Chinese for almost all of our sources of those materials,” Hanshaw said. “That’s a terrible situation for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is just straight up national security.”
Skaff said Democrats also want to focus on ensuring cost of living adjustments for state employees, retirees and workforce individuals in need.
“We need to just do a sliding scale, maybe every five years with an automatic trigger that gives the cost of living adjustment to retirees and public employees and teachers who are on a fixed income,” Skaff said. “People who have put their heart and soul into giving back to West Virginia, but yet they continue to earn the same and the price of everything as you know keeps going up.”
House and Senate leaders from both parties will caucus on Sunday, Dec. 4, and are expected to name leaders and committee chairs, vice-chairs and members.