Challenges await new W.Va. House speaker, team
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The challenges facing West Virginia's new House speaker may be reflected in one of the few leadership changes he's made.
Majority Leader Brent Boggs and Finance Chairman Harry Keith White will exchange jobs Aug. 1. The swap is the biggest shake-up announced so far by Speaker Tim Miley since fellow delegates chose him to lead the House in June.
Each lawmaker is trading one tough assignment for another.
The Finance Committee takes the lead on the annual state budget, and general tax revenues continue to falter. That could make for a painful process when the Legislature completes a new spending plan in 2014.
General revenues during the just-completed budget year missed their mark by $45 million -- or twice that amount counting the special income tax refund account the state drained to offset weak tax collections. Budget cuts, including a last-minute $17.7 million slice, helped the state avoid a spending deficit when the fiscal year ended June 30. The state is expecting $4.13 billion from general revenues during the current budget year, or $31.4 million less than last year's below-estimate total.
"Obviously, we are in a difficult time budget-wise," said Boggs, of Braxton County. "Revenues in certain areas are an issue."
A railroad engineer, Boggs previously sat on Finance and had risen to become its vice chair when then-Speaker Rick Thompson chose him as the Democrats' floor leader in 2008.
"That was probably the hardest part of becoming majority, was leaving the Finance Committee," Boggs said. "Hitting the ground running is important. We certainly will have a lot of challenges facing us."
With White at the helm, the House Finance Committee took the lead on the current budget during this year's session. The Mingo County banker understands the task that awaits Boggs.
"There just wasn't any wiggle room to do anything," White said. "It's going to be another tough budget year again next year."
The majority leader defends the party's position on the floor, and rallies its delegates. The job has grown more difficult as the Democrats' majority has dwindled in recent elections, and it began 2013 with 54 of 100 seats. White expects the 2014 session to be as much about that year's midterm elections -- the entire House is on the ballot -- as anything else.
"The [Republicans] will probably try to push issues to the floor to get [roll call] votes" that can become election ad fodder, White said.
GOP lawmakers argue that such attempts, on issues including same-sex marriage, abortion, and drug-testing for people receiving welfare-like benefits, enjoy the support of most voters.
"What the Republicans have tried to accomplish is what the people want us to accomplish," said House Minority Leader Tim Armstead. "Unfortunately, this same leadership has blocked those issues time and time again."
Lamenting Miley's choices as continuing the status quo, Armstead also counted tax and regulatory measures among the "bold" changes that GOP lawmakers seek to pursue.
"It's not to get roll call votes, it's to get things moving," said Armstead, of Kanawha County. "We will continue to fight for the changes that need to be made."
Miley said he has a game plan for his leadership team and its caucus heading into 2014.
"The challenges facing the House are the same ones facing the Democratic Party: making sure that we as a legislative body try to prioritize our focus on those matters that will move West Virginia forward," the speaker said.
Miley is sticking with the approach he outlined in his acceptance speech following his election as speaker. He sees West Virginia's top needs as improved education and job training; statewide high-speed Internet access to aid both distance learning and online entrepreneurs and business development; and support of the state's coal industry and other natural resource sector players.
"Moving the state forward has been a never-ending job. No one has ever denied that there's more to be done," Miley said.
"I think this leadership team is going to continue to move West Virginia forward, and working with the Republicans to do so. Hopefully, we can focus on working together and getting things done rather than who gets the credit."