Liz McCormick Published

W.Va. Lawmakers Outline Legislative Priorities For 2021 Session

Craig Blair Zoom Call - Dec 11 2020.jpg

Updated on Dec. 14, 2020 at 9:15 a.m. to include an audio version of this story.

Eleven Eastern Panhandle lawmakers met Friday morning to discuss top priorities for the upcoming legislative session. Among them: education, broadband and tax reform.

Incumbents and those newly elected to the West Virginia Legislature spoke to constituents over Zoom in an event hosted by the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Chamber of Commerce.

Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley — who has been the Senate Finance chair since 2017 but recently gained the approval of the majority caucus to lead the chamber — said he’s hopeful 2021 will bring back a sense of normalcy as COVID-19 vaccines become more available.

Blair said one good thing highlighted from the pandemic is the importance and the many uses of broadband.

“[The pandemic] opened up opportunities for us that we haven’t had before with remote learning, telemedicine, putting an emphasis on getting broadband, fiber to every home in West Virginia that we could possibly get it to,” Blair said. “That will be transformational to the state of West Virginia.”

Many lawmakers also voiced concerns about the pandemic’s impact on education this year along with their hopes of expanding school choice opportunities like charter schools, which they say would give flexibility to teachers and parents.

“I want to look at removing all the barriers that are causing and leading to teacher shortages,” said Senate Education Chair Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson. “But more than anything else, especially with this COVID pandemic, and as others have mentioned, we need to do greater expansion of broadband and more options for kids who right now, unfortunately, are at home.”

Rucker said she’d like to see teachers have priority access to a COVID-19 vaccine following first responders and health care workers.

“I think our teachers should be next,” she said. “Because the most important thing we can do is get them back in the classroom and get our kids back in the classroom.”

There was also a lot of discussion about tax reform. Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said he hopes to once again try and remove or limit the property tax currently on tangible personal property, machinery and equipment. The topic was highly contentious during the 2020 legislative session, but — as a proposed constitutional amendment — it ultimately failed to gain a needed two-thirds majority.

“The majority caucus is very interested in pursuing tax reform and different kinds of income tax reductions,” Trump said. “We tried to work last year on an amendment to the [West Virginia] Constitution to authorize the legislature to reduce or eliminate the ad valorem tax on tangible personal property, machinery, equipment, inventory, automobiles. I think we’ll have a much stronger chance this year of laying such a proposition before the citizens.”

Trump also said he hopes to revive his proposal to establish an Intermediate Appellate Court of Appeals, which is something he has tried to do several years in a row but without success.

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, the only Democrat from the Eastern Panhandle in the Senate, said public health also needs to be a priority this session to address “the cracks” exposed by the pandemic.

“We need to strengthen our public health system,” Unger said. “[But] also the other area that’s going to be very much needed: behavioral health. [Senate] President-elect Blair talked about broadband and telehealth, and there’s something called telebehavioral health as well. These are things that we’re going to have to address as we go into a post-pandemic world.”

Many of the West Virginia Legislature’s top leadership members are located in the Eastern Panhandle.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Berkeley County, the region’s largest and most populated county, has grown in population by more than 14,900 people between 2010 and 2019, compared to Kanawha County which has lost that amount during those same years.

Berkeley County is the second most-populated county in West Virginia, just behind Kanawha, according to the Census.

The 2021 regular West Virginia Legislative session is expected to convene in early February.