Legislative Leaders Discuss Priorities At Lookahead Session
Panel discussions during the West Virginia Press Association's annual Legislative Lookahead brought together lawmakers from the West Virginia Senate and the House of Delegates along with other state stakeholders with the media focused to discuss their priorities in the upcoming legislative session.
The discussions focused on education, economic development, broadband and infrastructure.
Senate President Craig Blair noted that he traditionally doesn’t sponsor legislation, but he plans to introduce Senate Bill 1 this year, to create a Mine Reclamation Mutual to alleviate concerns over mine reclamation bonds. He pointed out this will be a similar program to the workers compensation program that began in West Virginia as BrickStreet Insurance.
Blair said one company holds about 60 percent of the mine reclamation bonds and if anything would happen to that company it could cost the state between $1 billion and $8 billion, according to estimates.
“What we're hoping to do is take a $50 million loan, just like we did for workers comp and physicians mutual and make it so that these coal companies that they choose to have their own mutual that they can get the mine reclamation bonds through there,” Blair said. “The better the process works, the lower the cost of the bond.”
Blair also said he expects to see a flat budget proposal from the governor’s office and he supports that.
Last month, Blair joined Gov. Jim Justice and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw to announce they are moving forward with a pay raise for all state employees along with a bonus as well. Blair said he was an advocate for those raises.
Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin from Greenbrier County noted that one of his highest priorities is broadband infrastructure. He wants people to be able to come to West Virginia and work but said they need broadband to do that.
“There are folks who have moved to the Greenbrier Valley in the midst of COVID, because they want that experience of West Virginia,” Baldwin said. “But they need broadband in order to do that, and they can't get it. And so they're gonna have to move. That's unacceptable, we've got to reverse that trend.”
A project Hanshaw brought up was a site readiness program to identify locations for businesses that want to move to West Virginia.
“This would enable our Department of Commerce and our Department of Economic Development to have more marketable sites, more marketable facilities ready to pitch to those prospects that have identified West Virginia as a place that they might consider relocating their business,” Hanshaw said.
House Minority Leader Delegate Doug Skaff from Kanawha County noted that while he is fully supportive of efforts to bring people to West Virginia, he wants to find ways to encourage younger generations to stay.
“I just recently spoke to a high school class A couple days ago,” Skaff said. “I asked them to raise your hand if you plan to finish your degree in either high school or college in West Virginia, and stay in West Virginia. Five out of 22 raised their hand. Five out of 22 in one class said that they were going to plan to stay in West Virginia.
The meeting switched from in person to virtual earlier this week because of COVID-19 exposures. That brought up the question of what precautions will be in place during the session. Hanshaw said there are no plans to have restrictions at the start.
“We're starting to process next week, under the assumption that we’ll be business as usual, up and until circumstances warrant some kind of a change,” he said. “I'm not saying we would not make a change. I'm just saying we are not starting out that way.”
The 2022 West Virginia Legislative session begins Jan. 12.