Eric Douglas Published

Legislative Leadership Offers Lookahead To Press Corps

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Senate President Craig Blair, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw and House Minority Leader Doug Skaff address reporters during the West Virginia Press Association's Legislative Lookahead Friday.
Randy Yohe

Leadership from both chambers of the West Virginia Legislature met Friday with the state press corps at the West Virginia Press Association’s annual Legislative Lookahead.

Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, often speaks about reversing the state’s population loss and he indicated gainful employment is the best way to make people want to move to West Virginia — or stay here. He discussed the number of economic development announcements in the past year and wants to see more.

Blair also discussed problems at PEIA and making sure it is funded so more hospitals like WVU Medicine – Wheeling Hospital don’t refuse to accept the insurance plan. He also reiterated his plan to introduce legislation to split the Department of Health and Human Resources into three agencies so it is easier to manage.

“We’re going to get DHHR right,” he said. “We have that obligation.”

In the 2022 legislative session House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, introduced legislation to have more assistant teachers in K through 3rd grade classrooms. The bill didn’t pass, but he plans to introduce it at the beginning of this session. He said they introduced it too late in the session last year but has more information this year.

House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, said he felt the legislature should invest the state’s budget surpluses, estimated to hit $1.6 billion for this year alone, for the future of the state. He checked off a number of topics like PEIA, mental health and public education that all need more investments.

Skaff also noted that he wanted to see foster care legislation passed and for the state to “stop kicking that can down the road.”

House Bill 4344 bill failed on the last day of the session last year after the Senate heavily amended it and sent it back to the House, but the House ran out of time to accept or reject the Senate changes.

The bill included a 15 percent pay raise for social workers in the system and a public information data dashboard, meant to better inform and coordinate foster families and the myriad of agencies they work with. The dashboard was created anyway by the Department of Health and Human Resources.

The bill would also have enhanced services to kinship families, updated computer systems and prompted a study of the centralized intake system.

Skaff also said he wanted to pass an insulin price cap that also died on the last day.

John Deskins, director of the Bureau of Business & Economic Research at the WVU Chambers College of Business and Economics also addressed the reporters. He said about 2,000 more people moved into the state than left last year for the first time in a decade, but that was still offset by the 12,000 more people who died than were born here.

He also indicated that while unemployment is relatively low, our workforce participation, the percentage of people in the state who are working or looking for work, remains the lowest in the country and that needs to change.

Speaking about the budget surplus, Deskins explained that one reason for the higher than budgeted income is the high price of natural gas and the additional severance taxes the state receives because of it. He estimated about 20 percent of the surplus comes from that one factor alone.

His team is projecting the price of gas will fall off somewhat in 2023 meaning severance taxes will be lower because of it and lowering the excess tax revenue.