CHARLES TOWN – Area lawmakers say a host of issues that might call for immediate attention — namely education, drug abuse, prison overcrowding and child poverty — could keep state legislators busy throughout the 60-day session, which starts today in Charleston.
Senate Majority Leader John Unger, a Democrat, said his chief issue will be child poverty.
Unger said the issue became acute for him when he participated in a mock legislative session with a group of third graders from Berkeley County where they proposed bills like extending the length of recess or adding a second lunch break.
Unger said he was “totally stunned” by the answer given by one child when he was asked why he wanted a second lunch break.
“He said, ‘So I can eat an extra lunch before I go home and that will leave more food for my mom and my dad and my brother,’” Unger said. “This is unacceptable.”
“This is going to be my focus for however many years that I am still able to breathe,” Unger said, “because I am convinced that if you focus on the child, and you develop that child, and that child becomes a productive adult, then you raise the standard of living for the whole community.”
Lawmakers attended a number of meetings this month ahead of the opening of the session, including one convened by the League of Women Voters, and another by the Jefferson County chapter of the NAACP.
Sen. Herb Snyder, a Democrat who this year chairs the Government Organization and Senate Rules Committees, voiced praise for his colleagues.
“We have a great delegation going down this year,” he said. “In fact … it is not a great delegation, it is a superior delegation, and I say that with many years of experience. It may very well be the best delegation we have ever had.”
Delegate Stephen Skinner, a Democrat who was named to the House Judiciary and Constitutional Revision committees, said his top priority will be prison overcrowding.
“I think the climate is right to talk about serious reform, perhaps, in how we deal with folks that become involved in the criminal justice system,” Skinner said. “We just can’t afford – and I mean this literally, in dollar terms – we can’t afford to keep doing what we have been doing. And I am absolutely opposed to building another prison in West Virginia.”
Snyder said the state could find itself the target of a lawsuit by an inmate.
“All it will take is — one day a couple of these inmates are going to sue because they are eligible for parole; there are 1,700 of them still stacked in the prison system, but they haven’t had their prerequisite classes,” Snyder warned. “One lawsuit, and I’m sure the courts will say, ‘you are overcrowded. You have to build that $500 million prison.’”
Skinner said he also was concerned that voter ID laws or other measures would be proposed in the coming session.
“I intend to go to Charleston to defend our constitutional right to vote,” he said. “I am gravely concerned that there is going to be an effort to suppress voting in West Virginia, that instituting more regulations, more requirements to get to the polls is going to be a top agenda item for some folks.”
Skinner called this a “solution in search of a problem” and said he would fight any such proposals.
Skinner also said he would be a lead sponsor on a bill that would extend the protection of the West Virginia Human Rights act to gays and lesbians.
Delegate Paul Espinosa, a Republican, said “education promises to be a major focus of the upcoming legislature.”
Espinosa outlined a number of proposals to increase the autonomy of county and municipal authorities in order to solve such problems. He said he supports allowing counties to increase the homestead exemption in order to offer more tax protection to their local citizens and allowing counties to keep a larger portion of excise and transfer taxes in order to help defray ever-rising regional jail costs.
He said he was not philosophically opposed to a voter ID law, though he would want to ensure that it did not negatively impact voter turnout.
“I believe in limited state government,” Espinosa said. “I believe in more autonomy for our municipalities and county governments.” He said continuing decreases in coal severance taxes and expected decreases in gaming revenue will likely crunch both state and county budgets this year.
Delegate Tiffany Lawrence, who was recently appointed Assistant Majority Whip, said education and child poverty will be major issues for her in the upcoming session. She said she will advocate the creation of new teacher mentoring programs and teacher prep programs, as well as an expansion of school nutrition programs.
“We have to make sure that our children are not hungry, that the first thing they are thinking about is not where to get their next meal,” Lawrence said, adding legislators will have major decisions to deal with shrinking revenue and incoming Medicaid liabilities.
Lawmakers parted company when it came to their stance on so-called nullification laws, such as the kind being considered by state legislatures around the country to beat back federal gun control legislation.
Snyder, Lawrence, Unger and Skinner said they would not support so-called nullification laws, which would make it a crime to enforce some federal laws within the state.
Espinosa said he would consider any legislation on the topic.
“I would certainly be happy to look at legislation,” Espinosa said, though he declined to directly endorse such a proposal. “I would very much want to hear from our attorney general his perspective. He’s been very outspoken in his defense of our Second Amendment rights.”
Lawmakers also seemed of unlike minds on the issue of expanding Medicare.
Snyder said he would need to take a careful look at the costs of the program, and argued that the costs may not be as obvious as they seem. He said Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin had hired an actuarial firm to calculate the costs.
Espinosa also expressed concerns about the unknown costs of the expansion, but Skinner said the state should move to expand Medicaid, though costs would have to be a consideration.
“I think we need to implement the expansion of Medicaid in West Virginia. I think it is going to help a whole lot of folks and bring a lot of dollars into health care,” he said.
Snyder emphasized the importance of bringing forth mental health care reform. “Something good could come out of [Sandy Hook] if we as a nation start talking about mental health, which is what we should have been talking about all along,” he said. “We don’t have an inpatient facility anywhere in the Eastern Panhandle. It is just willfully inadequate statewide. And nobody will touch it because it just so darn expensive. It is a whole other dimension of health care.”