The 60-day regular session of the West Virginia Legislature is underway. Here’s what to watch for:
–Politics: The Legislature is a political body so that’s to be expected, but look for even more political maneuvering this session for two reasons: It’s an election year. All 100 House seats are up and half of the 34 Senators. Lawmakers are particularly sensitive in an election year to how the actions under the capitol dome will affect them. Additionally, Republicans believe they have a chance at taking control of the House (Democrats hold a slim 53-47 majority) and making inroads in the Senate (Democrats outnumber Republicans 24-10).
–Pay Raises: The leaders of both teacher unions say they did their part last session by agreeing to most of Governor Tomblin’s education reforms, and they now believe it’s their turn to get what they want–a pay raise for school teachers and service workers. Teachers get a small automatic raise every year based on their experience, but they have not had an across-the-board raise since 2012. The state’s public employees also believe raises are overdue. Gov. Tomblin is proposing a two percent raise for teachers and school service workers and a $504 increase for state employeers. Teacher union leaders call that a starting point.
–The Budget: Pay raises and increases in spending that carry forward add to the baseline of the state budget, and the budget is tight. In fact, the Tomblin administration had to figure out how to cut $82 million from this year’s budget and fill a $265 million hole in the budget beginning July 1st. West Virginia’s economy is not growing fast enough to fill the gap, meaning the Governor and lawmakers will have to find ways to cut and save. Tomblin proposes a controversial plan of dipping into the state’s Rainy Day fund for $84 million to cover higher Medicaid costs.
–Future Fund: Senate President Jeff Kessler believes this is the year for his pet project; a plan to set aside a portion of the increase in severance taxes from natural gas drilling into a special interest-bearing fund that would be a continuing source of revenue in the future. Kessler hopes to at least establish the framework for the Future Fund, with the collections beginning after the state passes through a couple tough budget years.
–Meth: West Virginia has a serious meth problem, not only the abuse of the destructive drug, but also the making of it in dangerous homemade labs. The state has put in place limits on the amount of pseudoephedrine (the key ingredient in making meth) that can be sold, but some policy makers believe more needs to be done. Expect a fight over a proposal requiring a doctor’s prescription for certain types of cold medicines that contain pseudoephedrine.
–Gay Rights: For several years, gay rights supporters have pushed to have sexual orientation included in the state’s hate crime laws. Last year’s attempt failed when supporters in the House of Delegates couldn’t get enough votes. The proposal prompts a fight within the Democratic Party because some conservative Democrats either oppose the move or don’t want to cast a tough vote that could hurt them at election time.
–Accountability: The first five planks of the House Democratic agenda focus on government accountability, and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has called for regular audits of all state agencies, and for good reason. Consider the following: a Legislative audit has turned up suspicious lending and spending practices in the state Agriculture Department under former Commissioner Gus Douglass. A former vice president at Fairmont State University has pleaded guilty to enriching himself by at least $650,000 by misusing a state purchasing card. Last year, federal investigators uncovered widespread political corruption in Mingo County.
–Curve Ball: It’s a two-month long session with 134 politicians (not including the Governor and the Board of Public Works); some things are bound to come out of left field. Stay tuned.