Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

January 5, 2013

Regional leaders share their views at Legislative Point of View Breakfast

BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BLUEFIELD — The changing face of southern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia politics was on display Friday morning at the Legislative Point of View Breakfast hosted jointly by the Greater Bluefield and Princeton-Mercer County chambers of commerce.

When Darryl Hudson, chair of the Bluefield Chamber’s governmental affairs division brought the event to order, it appeared as though Virginia State Sen. Phillip P. Puckett, D-Russell, might be the lone Democrat in the group that included West Virginia state delegates Marty Gearheart, Joe Ellington and delegate-elect John H. Shott. However, State Senator H. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo soon arrived, followed by State Delegate Clif Moore, D-McDowell and State Senator William P. “Bill” Cole, R-Mercer.

“Truman has been a great help to me,” Cole said of Chafin, a 30-year veteran of the state senate. “He’s been a great supporter to Mercer County.” Cole said that Chafin has helped him getting started in his role as the junior senator from the sixth senatorial district. “But don’t call me Junior,” Cole said as the crowd of about 125 people responded in laughter.

Traditional party lines were obvious as each legislator provided his take on the beginning of the 2013 legislative session. The Virginia General Assembly’s short session will begin on Jan. 9, with a scheduled conclusion on Feb. 25.

Puckett said he anticipates that with new financial challenges facing the commonwealth including the impact of funding reductions to the U.S. Navy, the Hampton Roads highway challenges and new challenges that state governments will face in order to fund provisions of the national health care program called Obamacare.

“Governor (Bob) McDonnell has already proposed a 4 percent across the board cut for state agencies,” Puckett said. “Usually, we just tweak the budget (during the short session),” Puckett said. He added that the state has enjoyed a balanced budget and a revenue surplus for three consecutive years.

Chafin encouraged the local leaders to organize, develop a workable plan and make a unified pitch for support to Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, who also hails from southern West Virginia. “We have a great delegation,” Chafin said. “We have 48 months with this administration.” Chafin encouraged the local leaders to work with Janet Bailey of the Mercer County Development Authority and create a regional economic development authority. He said that Cole would make a good chair for the agency.

“Let’s get a plan together,” Chafin said. “Let’s make hay while the sun shines.”

The 2013 legislative session in West Virginia will also convene on Jan. 9, for organizing committees, selecting chairs and addressing other post-election matters. The session is scheduled to start on Feb. 13, and run until midnight on April 13.

“I have a front row seat to change,” Cole said. He pointed out that West Virginia has been a one-party state for a long time, but added that in his opinion, the “dawn of a two-party system gives us a seat at the table.” Cole mentioned the matters that he thinks are key to changing the future including more employment, better education, tort reform and more. While he said that change will likely be gradual, he added that “the voters signaled in the last election that it’s time to start.”

Delegate-elect Shott was the first of the four area delegates to make a presentation. Shott said that West Virginia has one of the most top-heavy state governments in the country and underscored his point by bringing up the fact that the state’s classroom teachers rank 45th in terms of salary, while the state’s citizens contribute to a system than ranks 20th nationwide in terms of per-pupil funding.

“Here we are,” Shott said. “It’s 2013.” He said that whether or not people believe there is a war on coal, “It’s certainly obvious,” and added that coal severance tax revenues are already declining. Along with reduced revenues, Shott said that increased state support of Medicaid, prison overcrowding and the fact that surrounding states are drawing away revenues from gambling, there are many challenges on the horizon.

Shott asked rhetorically: “Can we really face the need to downsize state government,” in order to address these needs? Still, he said that legislators are working hard to find solutions. “I an encouraged, although it doesn’t sound like it,” Shott said as the audience erupted into laughter. He said the legislature has “good leadership, and with Republicans gaining 11 seats in the House, “we’re almost relevant.”

Ellington pointed out that “redistricting kinda backfired,” and representation in the House is now split with 46 Republican members and 54 Democratic members. “Committees will be more even,” Ellington said. He said that natural resources remain as “mainstays” of the state’s economy, but he said that with Mercer County being a border county, some taxes give surrounding states a competitive advantage.

Ellington said he proposed a bill last year that would significantly reduce the tax on gasoline to put the present rate more in line with other nearby states. “I can count, on one hand, the number of gasoline stations in Bluefield,” he said. Ellington said he supports drug testing for teens seeking to get their drivers licenses, and also said he would like to address the problem of illegal drug use by expectant mothers. “We have to stop this,” he said. Ellington also shared his ideas on addressing the health care and education challenges.

Ellington said that when he listens to the response of people related to the recently released education audit, “Most of what I’ve seen has been resentment to what has been brought up.” Gearheart also expressed his concerns about the “top heavy” nature of the state department of education, and noted that Republicans are working on a bill that would place accountability for test scores on students — not on teachers as they are now.

Gearheart led the applause when he mentioned that change was coming in the Environmental Protection Agency, but noted that “here in West Virginia, we’ve put more pressure on ourselves,” because of the cap and trade styled bill the state legislature passed prior to the federal legislation that did not clear the House of Representatives. “It’s important for us to go to Washington again and repeal that bill,” he said.

Gearheart renewed his pledge to work for a timely way to remove the turnpike tolls after the bonds for the highway have been paid off in 2019. “In addition, he said that he is part of a group that has put together a resolution for a new state song in honor of the state’s sesquicentennial. He pointed out that “Country Roads” is sung through the world, and is recognized as the state song.

Moore looked out on the faces of the people attending the event, said: “I feel good today,” and said that when he looks out at the faces of people he has seen at the legislative breakfast for the past 9 years: “What I see in this audience is hope,” he said.

Moore then issued a challenge to civic leaders of both parties, as well as to the leadership of colleges in the region to organize a forum in southern West Virginia to “look at the economy and another issue, school violence,” he said. “Moore suggested that the two-day forum could address all aspects of the problems and develop a strategic plan to address the issues.

“Dr. Krotseng,” Moore said, speaking to Bluefield State College President Dr. Marsha Krotseng. “I challenge you to get with your friend (Dr.) Greg Aloia” (president of Concord University) as well as other area colleges to organize the symposium. “”We want this region to be all it can be,” Moore said.

Hudson named the sponsors of the breakfast including Acme Wood Preserving, AEP, Alpha Natural Resources, BB&T, Bluefield Gas Company, CNX Gas, First Century Bank, MCNB Banks, New Peoples Bank as well as the chambers.