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Legislature to resume session on Monday

Jan. 12, 2014 @ 09:14 AM

CHARLESTON -- It's hard to tell when the West Virginia Legislature will truly get down to business, as a chemical spill that forced a water use ban effectively brought things to a halt Friday.

The plan is to resume Monday, though it's unclear whether the ban will be lifted by that time.

The one thing that is relatively certain is that when the Legislature does begin, the No. 1 task will be wrestling with a budget that faces an estimated $60 million deficit without slashing state-funded programs to the bone.

"Obviously the budget is the overall end of it," said Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, 5th District, who is in his 12th year in the Legislature. "We've been quite frugal for many years and taken care of things in good fashion."

"We've known this has been coming for a few years," added Del. Doug Reynolds, D-Cabell, 17th District. "We have a five-year budget projection that we've been able to operate by. This year and next year are going to be tight budget years. Next year will be a little easier than this year, according to that projection. The good thing is that we know if we can get through the next two years we can maybe start having budgets without budget cuts."

Del. Don Perdue, D-Wayne, 19th District, said the budget will be the biggest issue.

"It's a tight budget, and our revenues are down," Perdue said. "There will be legislative items that will result in the reduction of expenditures. What those are right now aren't necessarily clear, but these cuts are getting very deep and painful."

Reynolds said that higher education was "hit especially hard" by cuts in Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's budget from the 2013 session, which didn't sit well with the Cabell and Wayne county delegations promoting the interests of Marshall University.

The outlook from Tomblin's office at the moment, Reynolds said, is to cut the higher education budget 3.75 percent, down from the 7.5 percent hit in last session's budget.

"A lot of us were unhappy, and thought what happened was a little bit unfair," Reynolds said. "I think the governor heard us on that."

Del. Jim Morgan, D-Cabell, 16th District, called the lesser cut "a step in the right direction."

Sen. Evan Jenkins, R-Cabell, 5th District, is on the education committee, which he says gives him the opportunity to "fight for Marshall."

"I think the governor has always been open to dialogue," Jenkins said. "I've worked with the governor for many years, and always found him open to adjustments. He's always given the legislature latitude to address critical needs."

The 2014 session is a combination of lasts and firsts for Jenkins, a veteran of the state Senate.

It's Jenkins' last session in office, and his first as a Republican. Jenkins switched parties last year in order to file to run against U.S. Congressman Nick Rahall in the House of Representatives.

"In terms of being successful and getting things done, I don't think there will be any change," Jenkins said. "There are 34 of us in the Senate and we've always worked in a bipartisan manner."

Jenkins said he will continue in his last go around to push for legislation he's promoted in the past, including the establishment of an analytical model that can actually tell legislators how many jobs would be lost or gained by any particular piece of legislation.

"We talk about wanting to be business-friendly, but too often I think we put legislation in place that actually puts more hurdles in the way of economic growth," he said. "This plan would have a significant impact on making sure the legislature is not doing more harm than good."

Like many of his colleagues from the area, Jenkins also talked about addressing education and reducing crime.

Last year Jenkins introduced a bill that would create a criminal offense when a person has possession of burglary tools with evidence that the tools had been used or were about to be used in commission of a crime.

It was a bill he worked on with the help of Huntington Police Chief Skip Holbrook. He said he plans to introduce the bill again, and will also likely renew the push for tougher punishments on graffiti artists.

Another local legislator making his last go around this session is Kevin Craig, D-Cabell, 16th District.

Craig, who is vice president of business development for Natural Resource Partners LLC in Huntington, had considered making a run at Jenkins' seat, then announced that he would not pursue the office nor seek re-election, instead wanting to spend more time with his family.

This last session is a big one for Craig, who has been named chairman of the Legislature's Energy Committee.

His work with Natural Resource Partners, which manages resources like coal and oil and gas reserves, would seem to fit him to the task.

"It's early on, but I think the process of permitting, whether we're talking about coal or oil and gas or a cracker facility, is something we can make more efficient," he said. "Right now it's bogged down and it takes far to long to complete the process, which ends up costing time and money.

"Companies that are looking to invest here need to know what the rules are so they can apply for and meet the criteria for a permit in a more timely manner."

Craig also added his name to the list of local legislators who will try to protect funding for higher education.

"It's ultimate key to our state's success," he said. "We can't afford to cut funding, especially in higher education."

Education is at the fore of most lawmakers' agendas.

Del. Kelli Soboyna, R-Cabell, 18th District, who agreed with Jenkins on the Legislature putting up too many walls for business growth, said she's concerned about education on all levels.

"We're the second-highest in education funding in the nation per-capita, but our outcomes are not good. We're 49th in Student achievement," Sobonya said. "I believe we have great teachers. We're too top heavy. We have 10 times more bureaucracy in our education. That's money that's lost in the classroom."

Soboyna said she was pleased to hear Gov. Tomblin pledge support for the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program in vocational schools in his state of the state address.

"The focus needs to be on vocational and technical training," Soboyna said. "We have to make sure we bolster that. It really has potential to put people to work. Especially in the Marcellus Shale (natural gas) situation. With the appropriate training in that field people could go a long way. Right now, they're bringing in workers from out of state."

The session will be the first full one for Tim Kinsey, D-Wayne, 19th District, who was appointed last year to replace House Speaker Rick Thompson, when Thompson was tapped by the governor to become the secretary for veterans assistance.

Kinsey is a retired banker with 41 years of experience, who picked up what he could during the three-day interim sessions held last year after the regular session had ended.

"Being from Wayne, my focus is going to be on the Beech Fork Lake project of getting a lodge and conference center out there," he said. "I'd like to see that come to fruition."

That was seconded by Plymale.

"That's coming together. The marketing plan is coming together for that," Plymale said. "That's probably one of the more satisfying things I've worked on."

This session will feature a new committee called the Small Business Committee, of which Del. Carol Miller, R-Cabell, 16th District, will be a part.

"I think it's important to listen to small businesses and try to help them," Miller said. "They're the foundation of everything."

Reynolds also praised creation of the new committee.

"I was happy to see the Speaker (Tim Miley) pull that out and make it its own committee," Reynolds said. "I think it's something we definitely need. The state's done a relatively good job at reaching out to large employers like Amazon and Sogefi, but I think we need to extend the same help to a business that has maybe 20 employees and doesn't know where to start."

The drug problem is also a point of emphasis with local legislators.

Plymale said the disturbing trend of heroin becoming the drug of choice because users can no longer afford prescription pills is something that needs to be addressed.

"When I was younger, heroin was the last step drug addicts took," he said. "Now it's more prevalent because it's cheaper."

Sobonya also mentioned the drug problem, saying the state needed to address putting the drug pushers behind bars while rehabilitating the drug addicts.

Another issue to be addressed includes tax cuts that Tomblin promised in his state of the state address.

"I'm for tax cuts, but you have to show me where the money is coming from to replace that," Morgan said. "I'm also for increasing the minimum wage. But again, we have to know where the money is to make that possible."

According to reports, the state will likely dip into its $918 million in reserves to keep program cuts from being too stiff.

Reynolds said he wouldn't be surprised if some legislation crops up in one form or another addressing public integrity.

Corruption scandals in Mingo County and a federal investigation into a former Huntington disability appeals judge who approved almost every case he saw, resulting in a $2.5 billion hit to Social Security, might prompt such legislation, Reynolds said.

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