Session promises to be busy for lawmakers

The state’s elementary and secondary education system and the problem of drug abuse and the crowded prison system that is a result of that abuse should be two of the major items confronting the new 2013 West Virginia Legislature, which officially convenes in Charleston this week.

But Delegate Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, who now leads a Republican minority of 46 members in the 100-member House of Delegates, has already made it clear his party will give a lot of attention to a proposal that would require voters to show photo identification at the polls before being allowed to cast a ballot.

And a $750,000 efficiency audit of West Virginia’s elementary and secondary public schools, conducted at the request of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, has several suggestions that legislators are expected to consider at this 60-day session. The audit concluded that the state Department of Education’s administration was “top heavy” and listed several ways that the system can be improved.

Delegate David Perry, D-Fayette, is a veteran educator and one of the members of a special study group named by House Speaker Richard Thompson, D-Wayne, to analyze the audit. He said last week the group will even look at the concept of “virtual classrooms” where students would watch instruction on a TV monitor and work online to get the training they need for particular classes.

Gov. Tomblin has asked most state agencies, including the Department of Education, to submit budget requests for the new state fiscal year beginning July 1, 2013 that provide for a 7.5 percent reduction in spending. Certainly last week’s news that former State Superintendent of Schools Jorea Marple, fired late last year, is filing suit to get her old job back may stall consideration of major changes in that agency.

Before anyone can file a lawsuit against a state agency, that person must give 30 days notice so the actual legal action probably won’t be filed until sometime in February — probably close to the date the Legislature begins its session.

Meanwhile, the “biggest challenge” to West Virginia’s economy in 2013 will be this state’s shrinking labor force, according to Secretary Keith Burdette of the Department of Commerce. The state’s unemployment rate may have remained below the national average during the last few years but there are still fewer jobs two months ago than there were in November 2011.

His agency reported last week that there were about 14,000 fewer people employed in the state two months ago than there were in November 2011, according to figures from the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This drop of 1.8 percent is the largest percentage decrease in employment in the nation, according to a report released just before Christmas.

Ironically, West Virginia’s unemployment rate actually decreased during the same 12 months from 7.8 percent to 7.3 percent, which seems to suggest there is no problem. But this rate only counts people actively looking for work and doesn’t consider the people who have simply given up trying to find a job.

Burdette points to three factors that affect these statistics: He notes that West Virginia has an older work force; many rural areas that have few if any new employment opportunities, and, most importantly, applicants for jobs that too often fail mandatory drug tests.

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