Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin made it abundantly clear during his annual State of the State speech last Wednesday night that two issues are critical to the future of this state. He wants the 60-day session to concentrate on major changes in West Virginia’s public schools and he also wants lawmakers to seriously address this state’s crowded prison population problem.
But as he had mentioned earlier, these efforts will come without any increases in taxes. Indeed, state Budget Office Director Mike McKown stole a share of the spotlight earlier in the day when he told reporters at a financial briefing that state government agencies have been told to reduce spending in the upcoming 2013-2014 fiscal year by $75 million. And he said this is being done without laying off or furloughing any state employees.
Two key public education issues the governor wants considered at this session are to require all 55 counties to offer full-day pre-kindergarten to four-year-olds within three years and make sure all children are reading on grade level at the end of the third grade. He also emphasized the need to make sure all high school graduates are prepared to join the work force or enter college.
Tomblin was less specific about his program to cope with the overcrowded conditions in the state’s prisons and the companion issue of widespread substance abuse that is the major cause of those crowded conditions. He said a report by the Justice Center of the Council on State Governments concluded that “substance abuse is a huge part of prison overcrowding, and the high re-offending rate intensifies the problem.”
House Speaker Richard Thompson, D-Wayne, told some 400 people attending the Charleston Area Alliance’s annual Issues and Eggs breakfast last Wednesday prior to the governor’s speech that “we need to find $20 million to $25 million to make substance abuse programs work.” And he, too, indicated it can be done without any new taxes.
Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, who also spoke at that breakfast, said he thinks there will be a “real concerted effort to get education reform” this legislative session. “We’ve not been getting our education bang for the buck,” he said.
But Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, argued that so long as Delegate Mary Poling, D-Barbour, is chair of the House Education Committee any meaningful reforms in public education are likely to die there. Poling is a veteran educator and as the committee chair, she determines what legislation is taken up for a vote in that committee.
Wells would like to see teachers hired on performance rather than seniority. He said the state needs to get past the idea that teachers should be hired based on years of service instead of ability. The 2012 education efficiency audit recommended this change but it’s generally opposed by teacher unions.
Meanwhile, the shift in emphasis by the leaders at West Virginia’s four-year and two-year colleges that is now under way is understandable when you look at the numbers. The primary goal had been to get students enrolled at the state’s four-year colleges and universities and also at the two-year institutions. But now the push is to get more of these students to complete their higher education studies and graduate with a degree.
The most alarming statistic presented to legislators at a joint House-Senate study committee last week was that while three of every four first-time freshmen returned to four-year colleges in the state in 2011, fewer than half of these students actually completed their studies and received a degree within six years.
Results are even worse at the two-year colleges where only about one in four students earned an associate degree or certificate within six years of starting school.
Both James Skidmore, head of the Council for Community and Technical College Education, and Paul Hill, chancellor of the state Higher Education Policy Commission, told members of the legislative committee that the colleges need to do a better job of making sure these students completed their studies and earned a degree.
And of course there is a financial concern in all these efforts to help students stick it out and earn a college degree. Higher education is supposed to absorb a 7.5 percent cut in the 2013-2014 state budget — an estimated reduction of some $24 million. And West Virginia provided a little less than $4,000 per student at its public four-year colleges for the 2010-2011 school year — second lowest among the 16 states that are part of the Southern Regional Education Board.
Finally, the controversial legislation to prohibit landlords and businesses with more than 12 employees from “discriminating against people because of their sexual orientation” is going to be introduced for the fourth straight year at the state Legislature. Frank Hartman, the lobbyist for Fairness West Virginia which is pushing the bill, said recently he is “extremely optimistic” it will pass before the 2013 session ends.
Currently it is legal in West Virginia to fire or evict a person because they are gay or bisexual. Hartman said last week the latest version contains one key change to the proposed new law that would “free church and church-run businesses like hospitals from being required to hire gay or lesbian individuals.” The state Senate passed the bill in 2010 and 2011 but both times it died in the House of Delegates. So last year it was decided the legislation should be considered in the House and it died in committee, a fate many lawmakers believe could happen again this year.