West Virginia editorial roundup

Recent editorials from West Virginia newspapers:

Nov. 30

The Charleston Daily Mail on the state school system:

The West Virginia Constitution requires the state to provide, “by general law, for a thorough and efficient system of free schools.” West Virginia public schools are neither.

The audit of the state’s public school system by Public Works, an independent consultant, found that education is over-regulated and top-heavy.

“We have encountered no other state that insulated its education system so much from gubernatorial — or voter — control,” the audit said.

The time has come to change that. The state Board of Education, having asserted its proper role with respect to a recalcitrant state Department of Education, has signaled its willingness to do so.

But Senate Education Chairman Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, while supportive, called the board’s 134-page response to the audit “vague.”

“If you sit there and tell me that you feel strongly about some of these things, then that’s a fairly weak reply to me,” Plymale told state board president Wade Linger at a public hearing recently.

“I see a lot of recommendations, but I don’t see specifics. If you’re saying you need to change code, it’s very vague. We’re not offended by strong statements that say, ‘This is the direction we think you should go.”’

Linger and other board members do not have a staff of lawyers to draft legislation. But legislators do.

Board members and legislative staff members should be able to prepare legislation that rids the state code of laws that micromanage classrooms, bury teachers with paperwork and requirements, and prevent the state from paying more to attract teachers who are harder to find.

Teachers need laws that allow them to produce an orderly environment so students can learn. Students deserve at least 180 days of actual instruction. Educational leaders need more freedom to try new approaches, greater ability to root out poor teachers, and on and on and on.

And the state does need to find efficiencies to put more money into improving outcomes. The audit suggests possible ways to do that.

West Virginians are eighth in the percentage of personal income spent on public education. As the audit pointed out, the state is 47th in education performance.

That is not acceptable.

State leaders should work now to prepare a solid set of proposed legislation so they can hit the ground running in the new year.

Changes should be possible for the new school year in August.

Dec. 1

The Herald-Dispatch, Huntington, on the state’s home-rule pilot program:

West Virginia’s home-rule pilot program that began in 2007 will be up for review by the Legislature next year, and recently legislative auditors concluded the project has been helpful to cities and the state.

Mountain State cities have long complained that state code does not give them much flexibility on raising revenue and handling urban issues, and the pilot program gave four cities — Huntington, Charleston, Wheeling and Bridegport — a chance to try some changes on their own.

The auditors reported that the four cities developed almost two dozen proposals over the past five years, with many at least partially implemented by city ordinances and eight enacted statewide. That certainly indicates that some important city issues were not being addressed.

For example, several initiatives were passed to deal with dilapidated and abandoned housing, a problem that cities across the state have been struggling with for more than a decade. But most legislators in West Virginia represent rural areas (only 18 percent of West Virginia’s 1.8 million people live in cities with more than 10,000 population). So, the problem had received little consideration in Charleston.

Home rule helped develop some good strategies on that front that will benefit cities and small towns, too.

However, questions about taxing authority prompted some of the most vocal opposition to the program. Huntington used home rule to adopt an ordinance that authorized a 1 percent occupation tax and the repeal of its $3-a-week user fee, not only prompting an uproar from many residents but also a legal challenge that still has the matter tied up in court.

On the other hand, Huntington’s move to add a local 1 percent sales tax, using the revenues to reduce taxes on businesses in the city, has been fairly well received and successful.

The legislative auditors have recommended opening the home rule program to almost all of the state’s cities and towns. But it is unlikely that we will see legislative support for such a broad expansion. … On the whole, the home-rule program has provided cities with an opportunity to address some important problems, but tax changes need a clearer and more rigorous review process to help avoid a repeat of the Huntington court case.

Dec. 3

The Inter-Mountain, Elkins, on the rights of landowners:

Most gas companies try to work with the owners of land on which they set up rigs to drill for natural gas and oil. They avoid disturbing the surface when possible and often try to compensate landowners for damage.

But drillers’ responsibilities in that regard can be very limited. If a landowner does not also hold title to the rights for minerals under his property, his leverage with gas and oil companies can be restricted severely.

West Virginia Supreme Court justices recently ruled against a landowner who had objected to a company’s plan to drill on his Doddridge County property. Concerned about damage to his land, he had asked the state Department of Environmental Protection to require the drilling company to alter its plan.

When the DEP approved the initial drilling plan, the landowner went to court.

Supreme Court justices ruled against the landowner, noting state law does not give those who own only surface rights to land the right to appeal drilling permits.

But in her written opinion on the matter, Justice Margaret Workman, backed by a unanimous court, urged the state Legislature to take another look at surface owners’ rights. Lawmakers should “consider whether surface owners should be afforded an administrative appeal” of such DEP decisions, Workman recommended.

She is right — though it needs to be emphasized altering the law at this stage of the gas drilling game could be difficult. Many mineral rights owners already have signed leases with drilling companies, which paid fees and agreed to royalty rates based on the cost of complying with existing law. Changing the rules now would be unfair, and possibly unconstitutional.

Still, Workman is right. Lawmakers should reconsider the rights of landowners who do not also own mineral rights for their property. Obviously, they will have to exercise great care in making any changes, however.

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