CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia officials hope to show off the state and some of its recent achievements at the end of this month, when they host hundreds of their counterparts at the annual meeting of the 15-state Southern Legislative Conference.Organizers expect the July 28-31 meeting will draw around 600 state lawmakers, staffers, other public officials and their families. The conference, which is an office of the nonpartisan Council of State Governments, is coming to West Virginia because House Speaker Rick Thompson serves as its chairman this year.The agenda includes the specialized court that West Virginia is pursuing to handle disputes among businesses. Thompson has championed the concept since learning about it at a legislative conference in Delaware. Attendees will also exchange notes on their states' finances. Colleen Cousineau, the conference's executive director, said that discussion would likely include how West Virginia leads the region for exports.Other topics include looming changes to Medicaid and the future of federal highway funding as well as agriculture, public retirement plans and jobless benefits.
"We get to learn what other states are doing, and how they're dealing with some of their problems and concerns,'' said Thompson, D-Wayne. "That helps us become better legislators.''Another feature of the conference appears well-timed for West Virginia: combating hunger. It's a top priority of Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, Thompson's predecessor as chairman. As a result, meeting participants plan to package 20,000 meals for two West Virginia food banks. The state's food banks seek to restock after a series of storms that began June 29 knocked out power -- and refrigerators with it -- for more than 680,000 households and businesses.Social and recreational offerings include zip lining, whitewater rafting, treetop canopy tours, a downtown Charleston concert and day trips to The Greenbrier resort and Wood County's Blennerhassett Island. The success of the top-rated History Channel miniseries "Hatfields & McCoys'' has helped stir interest in a tour of sites related to the famous feud, Cousineau said."We'll have a series of events that are geared more toward spouses and children, to showcase West Virginia while these other meetings are going on,'' Thompson said.Several West Virginia natives expect to make special appearances at the meeting. Author Homer Hickam will headline one session. Actress Jennifer Garner will speak as artist ambassador for Save The Children's U.S. programs, which have committed resources in the state. Singer Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. will perform.The conference last held its annual meeting in West Virginia in 1997.