by Kate Shunney
The 2022 session of the West Virginia Legislature opens this Thursday, January 13 and runs through April 10. Lawmakers from around the state will gather at the State Capitol to introduce bills and debate legislation during the 60-day session.
As each year’s new session opens, delegates and state senators prepare to weigh the issues that affect West Virginia’s residents, its revenue, current and future development and its many challenges.
During its annual Legislative Lookahead on Friday, January 7, members of the West Virginia Press Association spoke with state leaders via video conference about what issues and proposals the public can expect to see during the session.
Lawmakers said they’d hold a focus on making the state more attractive to new businesses and new residents, and would wrestle more with the challenges facing West Virginia families — those trying to raise children and others living out their retirement in the Mountain State.
WVPA Executive Director Don Smith led the panel discussions, posing questions from the press participating around the state.
Preparing for opportunity
Charles Clements (R-Wetzel), Chair of the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he hopes lawmakers can work on the “little shortcomings that have held us up so far” in important projects. Clements said West Virginia has been “reactive not proactive” in preparing for growth, and the state needs to have “shovel-ready” projects and sites to attract both dollars and developers.
Delegate Clay Riley (R-Harrison), Vice Chair of the House Technology & Infrastructure committee said economic development in the state is a continuous effort to retain, expand and recruit business.
Riley said one priority in the 2022 session will be a Site Certification and Readiness program to make sure industrial properties are ready to be developed quickly when someone shows interest.
“The state is missing out on opportunities,” Riley said, because some sites lack infrastructure like roads, broadband, water and sewer service.
He noted that broadband internet deployment is a growing priority, and that the state’s effort to get accurate service maps was a huge step in getting internet service where it doesn’t exist yet.
Riley said at least $700 million of infrastructure projects are ready to be funded in the state. Stormwater management projects have not been easy to pay for through existing programs, and he hopes lawmakers will change that during this session.
Helping residents thrive
State Senator Owens Brown (D-Ohio), who serves on the Senate’s Economic Development committee, said West Virginia still has a long way to go to making the state “people-friendly” to attract new residents, retain natives and attract businesses.
“As long as West Virginia has this image of drug issues, it won’t be attractive to businesses and families,” he said.
Brown said wages have remained too low to help residents have money to put into their local economy.
Broadband internet access is one way to stabilize the population and attract remote workers, Brown agreed. He said communities and schools have to be attractive and liveable in order for people to stay, and for companies to consider moving here.
“Ever since I can remember, we’ve been talking about bringing in industry and we always wind up in the same boat,” said Brown.
Challenges in Education
Del. Joe Statler (R-Monongalia), Vice Chairman of the House Education Committee, talked about the education issues facing lawmakers in this new session.
He said one of the bills lawmakers hope to introduce would add an aide to any first and second grade classroom with more than 12 students.
That move, which is expected to affect 1,800 classrooms and cost up to $68 million, would “give students more one on one” support, said Del. Statler.
“We know the building of the foundation is critical,” he said.
Statler acknowledged that adding 1,800 people to the state payroll would be an economic plus, but that schools are already having trouble attracting enough teachers to positions already. He said lawmakers would look at working with higher education institutions to “get people skills to do this.”
“We really believe this can be a game-changer,” said Statler.
Lawmakers are also considering giving pay raises across the board to school personnel, given the state revenue windfalls lately.
Delegate Ed Evans (D-McDowell), Minority Vice Chair of the House Education Committee, talked at length about the need to figure out why West Virginia has a shortage of teachers, and what to do to get people back in the profession. He is retired educator.
“There are people out there who want to teach, but we’re losing programs for teachers left and right,” said Evans.
He said the state needs to figure out the crux of the problem – whether the trouble for teachers is student discipline, testing, or a host of other issues.
“It takes a whole state to fix the education system,” said Evans.
State Senator Ron Stollings (D-Boone) suggested the state beef up the Birth to Three programs that focus on the healthy development of the state’s youngest residents.
“That’s what will save us down the road,” he said.
West Virginia’s social issues are the same ones that impact the education system, said Stollings.
Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said teacher shortages have to be addressed by wages, restoring respect and turning to educators for solutions.
Lee said educators now are burned out and need mental health support, as do their students.
All of the above solutions
Senate President Craig Blair (R-Berkeley) said he wants lawmakers to bring good solutions to a vote quickly during the 2022
session, and said he embraces any good ideas, no matter which party they come from. Blair supports setting up a different mechanism to secure mine reclamation obligations, and said he wants the state to update its unemployment systems.
Blair said he wants all energy and energy-related industry on the table for West Virginia – from small nuclear package operations to blue hydrogen and “any other downstream items.” He said the state needs to “make it so that solar is readily available” for corporations who want to do business in West Virginia.
He said Proctor & Gamble and other large companies “want a carbon neutral footprint” and “we need to be able to give it to them.”
“Corporate America looks at how fast we adapt to changes,” said Blair.
Other legislative leaders said they would weigh bills based on whether they would keep West Virginia residents in the state, bring people here, and help the state’s children.
Other topics they expected to come up during the session include investments in the State Lab system, recruiting and retaining remote workers, assistance to the hospitality and tourism industries and tackling the ongoing substance use disorder plague.
A schedule of proceedings for the 2022 session can be found on https://www.wvlegislature.gov. Residents can watch the live stream of floor sessions, votes and committee meetings, with links found on that page.