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W.Va. GOP spells out its agenda

Legislature
Nov. 07, 2012 @ 11:50 PM

CHARLESTON — Republicans in West Virginia's House of Delegates want to create an intermediate appeals court, amend property tax laws and pursue other major changes after Tuesday's general election nearly erased the Democrat's 15-seat majority, House Minority Leader Tim Armstead said Wednesday.

The GOP's 2013 agenda also will target regulations and public school bureaucracy, while revamping the way the state funds roads in part by tapping general tax revenues, the Kanawha County Republican told The Associated Press. He noted that Republican delegates have introduced such proposals during previous sessions, including this year's.

"We've come up with creative ways to address these issues, but they've been blocked by the Democratic leadership," said Armstead, who ran unopposed Tuesday. "We're hoping that the leadership got the message that voters sent last night."

But while the GOP surged in the House, Democrats remain firmly in control of the state Senate with 25 of 34 seats. Voters also re-elected Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. The Democrat defeated Republican Bill Maloney -- whose platform included a number of the items on Armstead's agenda -- by more than 31,000 votes. It was a rematch of their close 2011 special election race for an uncompleted term.

"It isn't necessarily a bellwether that the world has changed and that everything they advance will pass," said Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall.

Republicans saw their share of delegates in the 100-member House swell from 35 to at least 44, according to unofficial results. They upset at least five incumbents: Speaker pro tempore Ron Fragale of Harrison County; Boone County's Larry Barker; Bonnie Brown of Kanawha County; Stan Shaver of Preston County; and Delegate Helen Martin of Putnam County.

GOP candidates George "Boogie" Ambler of Greenbrier County, Roy Cooper of Summers County, John Shott of Mercer County and David Evans of Marshall County all picked up seats left by retiring Democrats. Cindy Frich, a former GOP delegate from Monongalia County, won a seat shifted to that area in response to the 2010 Census.

Republican John McCuskey, meanwhile, displaced Kanawha County Delegate Bobbie Hatfield by 64 votes and GOP nominee Mike Folk outpaced Democrat Donn Marshall by 74 votes for a Berkeley County seat. With the statewide canvass of the results set for Tuesday, Kanawha had around 1,100 provisional ballots and Berkeley had around 125, county officials said.

Delegate Walter Duke of Berkeley County was Tuesday's only losing GOP incumbent, while Democrat Adam Young picked up a GOP-vacated seat in Nicholas County.

The shift in numbers arrives just one month before each chamber will nominate its top leaders for the next two-year term of the Legislature. House Speaker Rick Thompson, a Wayne County Democrat, plans to seek a fourth term in that post.

The bolstered ranks also mean Republicans will occupy a greater share of House committee seats -- a crucial gain, Armstead said.

"With a one- or two-vote difference between Republican members and Democrat members, that will really assist us in moving our priorities forward," he told AP.

Armstead believes his caucus can achieve a de facto majority by peeling away conservative Democrats on House votes, and perhaps even persuade some of them to switch parties.

"I am confident there are some members of the Democratic Party who share our beliefs on some of these issues," Armstead said.

Thompson said his leadership team has sought to work with GOP delegates. He cited several recent changes to the rules for running the House, including one that allows for more public hearings. Delegates also crafted a bipartisan compromise that set the stage for the ongoing repeal of the sales tax on food.

"Whenever they have an agenda, we always take a look at it," Thompson said. "There are times that we disagree. We do have differences of opinion ... Sometimes you have to make tough choices when you're in the leadership."

Thompson questioned whether Tuesday's results reflected a mandate from West Virginia voters. He noted the re-election both of Tomblin and of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, another Democrat. Thompson and House Majority Whip Mike Caputo instead cited the overall GOP strategy of invoking President Barack Obama -- who received about 35 percent of Tuesday's vote -- in down-ballot races.

"This was a very, very different election, one we've never seen in West Virginia before," said Caputo, of Marion County. "The minority party took full advantage of the anti-Obama sentiment in the state. It worked, quite frankly. But I don't believe that dynamic will hold true in future elections. I believe we will get some of those seats back."

The GOP gained three seats in the Senate, increasing their share to nine. With half the chamber up for election Tuesday, seven of the 11 Democrats who won ran unopposed. But Republican Bill Cole upset Sen. Mark Wills in Mercer County and Chris Walters won the GOP a redistricted seat representing Kanawha and Putnam Counties.

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Follow Lawrence Messina at http://twitter.com/lmessina

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