By ANDREA LANNOM
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia lawmakers who received nominations for leadership positions in the House and Senate agreed during the opening of the legislative interims on Sunday that the budget should be the top priority in the upcoming session.
Lawmakers met in Charleston Sunday, the first day of interims, to vote on nominees for Senate and House leadership positions and to begin developing an agenda.
Two Republicans, Tim Armstead, who will likely be House speaker, and Mitch Carmichael, the likely Senate president, said they want the state’s budget and economic issues to be the top priority.
Armstead, R-Kanawha, is targeting the state’s tax structure, drug abuse, legal climate and regulations.
Carmichael, who received his party’s nomination to be the Senate president, agreed that the primary emphasis of the next legislature will be the budget, but also said education should be front and center.
“I would like to free the education system to allow our teachers to teach, students to learn and provide each of them with a world class 21st century education that allows them to compete on a world stage,” he said.
Armstead said some individuals and small businesses feel like they don’t have the opportunity to go before the court on tax issues.
Armstead wants the equipment inventory tax addressed. What he would like to see, he said, is an arrangement where the state buys the equipment so businesses won’t have to pay that tax, which he said is more akin to other states.
“If you want to come to West Virginia and start a manufacturing business, you’re paying every-year tax on that equipment that is not charged in other states.”
Armstead said he wants lawmakers to address substance abuse in three prongs – catching children before they become addicted, cracking down on drug traffickers and helping those addicted to drugs to overcome addiction.
On legal reform, Armstead would like to see the addition of an intermediate court of appeals.
The American Tort Reform Association previously has criticized West Virginia for not having an intermediate court of appeals and listed the Mountain State for several years at or near the top of the “judicial hellhole” list until last year, when it moved the state to the watch list after the state passed some tort reform legislation.
“Whether an individual goes to court and is unhappy with the court action they had, plaintiff or defendant, or a business that wants to invest capital and has a court case where they disagree with the result,” Armstead said. “They should have the right to have their day in court.
“I believe in the automatic right of appeal and that will most likely be done best by having an intermediate court of appeals,” Armstead later said.
Armstead, an attorney, said he would like to use existing resources to staff judges and courthouse facilities to operate an intermediate court.
“I do think that if we have an intermediate court of appeals, it would take the workload off the Supreme Court and anyone who feels aggrieved has that opportunity to have an appeal.”
Critics previously have said an intermediate court only adds another layer to the criminal justice system and that the state Supreme Court already reviews cases and will at least issue a memorandum decision.
Armstead said he also wants the House to review existing regulations to see if there are areas where the state is “micromanaging.”
“There are a number of regulations on the books that haven’t been reviewed,” Armstead said. “We haven’t gone back to see if it’s working. There is work to do of insuring individuals, small businesses to come in and employ people.”
Armstead says the focus is on job creation, not social issues. He said lawmakers are still developing their agenda but the main focus will be the economy. However, he said that would not exclude members from taking up other issues.
“It’s clear to say in talking with our caucus that we see to do all we can that job creation is the top priority. That’s the message sent to us by voters and one that strikes the chord of what we want to accomplish,” Armstead said.
“We really believe that the state has been struggling and it’s been at the bottom of so many lists with economics and there’s so much we can do to improve that.”
Carmichael is all on board.
“We want our complete focus to be creating an environment that the private sector feels is conducive to the creation of an amazing number of jobs in West Virginia,” he said. “We want jobs in this state. We feel this is such a task to find every impediment to job creators and bust it down and create incentives for job creators to hire West Virginians.”
Carmichael said he will focus on education, mentioning in particular more control handed to the county level. In particular, he mentioned curriculum, school calendars, planning periods, recess periods and what subjects are taught.
Lawmakers also voted on the new Senate majority leader, who will be Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio. Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, will be the majority whip.
Roman Prezioso, a conservative Democrat from Marion County, received his party’s nomination for Senate president. He will compete against Carmichael in January, but with the Republicans’ 22-12 seat advantage, he will be the likely minority leader.
Prezioso wants the focus to be the budget, education, health care and jobs.
“Democrats have always been about education, health care and jobs and we want to continue to provide info to our members to see that people are well taken care of.”
Tim Miley, D-Harrison, who received his party’s nomination on the House side, will run against Armstead in January but will be the likely minority leader. He said although the agenda is still in development, he still wants the first priority to be the budget and streamlining government.
“Even though I’m in the minority, I intend to work very hard to address the state’s financial issues that we currently face with the shortfall of funds that we have available to our state. In doing so, I feel strongly that the budget needs to be made more of a priority than it was the last year. We shouldn’t have to have a special session for five weeks to get a budget passed.”
Interims continue today with a full slate of committee meetings, followed by another busy day on Tuesday and ending Wednesday with a four-hour Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on legislative rule-making.
The 2017 legislative session starts in February. Jim Justice will be inaugurated as West Virginia’s new governor on Jan. 16.