Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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January 4, 2014

Area legislators share their 'Point of View' with local chambers

BLUEFIELD — Snow, ice and single-digit temperatures Friday morning didn’t prevent a decent crowd from attending the 2014 Legislative Point of View Breakfast sponsored jointly by the Princeton-Mercer County, Greater Bluefield and Tazewell area chambers of commerce.

Virginia State Sen. Phillip P. Puckett, D-Russell, and West Virginia State delegates John H. Shott, Joe Ellington and Marty Gearheart, all Republicans from Mercer County, attended the meeting.

Bud Clapp, vice president of the Bluefield Chamber’s governmental division, explained that West Virginia State Sen. H. Truman Chafin D-Mingo was on a cruise with family and could not attend while State Sen. Bill Cole, R-Mercer was ill and unable to attend.

“The big issue in the West Virginia state legislature this year is the budget,” Shott said. “Last year, we slashed $75 million from the budget. This year, I’ve heard projections ranging from $50 million to a $275 million revenue shortfall.” Shott said that his concern is that the response in Charleston is that “we can do all things for all people and when times get hard, we can slash (funding) across the board.”

According to Shott, the difficulty with that approach is that state revenues are often inconsistent. He said that governments should function more like families do. “If we hit a snag, we don’t go next door and ask our neighbors to help out,” he said. He added that some effort needs to be directed to reduce the level of bureaucracy in state government. “We regulate barbers,” Shott said, adding that “certainly” the legislature could find better things to do with its resources.

Shott pointed out that West Virginia has a well-paid staff in the department of education in Charleston, but added that teacher pay in the Mountain State ranks 47th among the 50 U.S. states. He said that to make a change in education, “we should begin by flattening the bureaucracy in Charleston,” he said.

On another level, Shott said that the state also needs to develop a greater, “culture of education in our students and parents,” he said, adding that without “an appreciation for education,” there isn’t much hope of making a positive impact on education in the state.

Shott also talked about a possible approach to the sentencing alternatives that the courts can consider for non-violent, drug offenders who “succumbs to the stresses of life and takes to drugs to escape.” He said that the idea is to help non-violent drug offenders, “not to return them to the same situation that got them into trouble in the first place, or send them to prison where they could possibly become hardened criminals.”

Ellington opened his remarks by saying that he was excited to see both Princeton and Bluefield had hosted special events to welcome in the new year. In addition to the budget, Ellington said that the state needs to become more competitive with gas prices, noting that the price-per-gallon of gasoline in Princeton is about $3.47 a gallon, while the price in Virginia can be about 50 cents per gallon less expensive.

“We’re getting more competitive,” Ellington said of the political party make-up of the state legislature. “This county and this part of the state has made a difference in that.” Ellington said that more diverse legislation is brought into the discussion in a competitive legislature.

Ellington said that “an educated and drug-free work force is important” to job creation in the state. He added that “job creation” will get more people to remain in the state.

“As far as the drug issue goes, it’s hard to legislate that. There’s no easy way to do that,” he said. “We don’t have facilities to put them back into, and it seems to be getting worse and worse. I see it in my practice.” Dr. Joe C. Ellington, M.D., has a practice in obstetrics and gynecology in Princeton.

“Health care is also going to be a big issue,” Ellington said. “I just see this whole system collapsing.”

During a question and answer period following the formal remarks, Bill Hawley, chief executive officer of Bluefield Regional Medical Center asked  the West Virginia delegates present to comment on how committed West Virginia is to the Affordable Care Act.

Ellington responded that the state is considering putting the Affordable Care Act in with the Public Employees Insurance Agency and other public programs. He said that during the first 3 years of the program, the federal government will cover 100 percent of the expansion, but drop it to 80 percent after that. “I’m looking at a two-tier system,” he said. “As a state, we may be small enough to get along on our own.”

Gearheart pointed out that 2014 is another election cycle in West Virginia and added that, “on the House side, we have a new speaker and leadership.” Gearheart said the state budget will be a challenge. “Oh ... That budget’s going to be tight,” he said.

Gearheart said that he plans to keep bringing up the issue of removing the tolls from the West Virginia Turnpike; the repeal of House Bill 103, West Virginia’s Cap-and-Trade bill; debating the issue of recalculating prevailing wage.

“We’re going to talk about getting state money out of the hands of people who use drugs, and we would like to bring local control of education back,” he said.

However, Gearheart predicted that two other issues would dominate discussion during the 2014 session, but he said that neither issue will bring success to the state. The two issues he predicted will be in the spotlight are medical marijuana and the prescription pseudoephedrine problem.

“Call us,” Gearheart said. “We’re your advocates.”

Puckett, now in his 16th year in the Virginia Senate, said that following the November election, three Democrats — Terry McAuliffe, Ralph Northam and Mark Herring — won election to the three statewide offices. He said this is the first time the Democrats have held all three offices since 1989 when Doug Wilder, Don Beyer Jr., and Mary Sue Terry held the office of governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general respectively.

“We’re tied at 20-20 in the Senate,” Puckett said of the political makeup of the Virginia senate. However, since two of the successful statewide candidates had been senators, special elections will fill the seats on Jan. 7, and Jan. 21. “We’ll open the 60-day session on Jan. 8, with a $400 million surplus,” Puckett said.

Puckett said that a 10-member commission has not yet reached a 6-vote majority on the way the state should go on the Medicaid expansion program. He said that out-going Gov. Bob McDonnell put an additional $30 million in the budget to deal with the mental health issue. “That’s been a big issue since the tragedy experienced by the family of Creigh Deeds,” Puckett said. He added that supporters of the Coalfield Expressway are facing additional challenges from environmentalists over the completion of the four-lane highway to the Kentucky line.

“I think you’re going to see an historic change in Virginia,” Puckett said. “We, as elected officials, are going to have to sit down and work with each other. We’ll see something in the next two weeks.”

The legislative sessions of both Virginias start on Jan. 8.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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