WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — The Republican-controlled West Virginia Legislature will push a new intermediate court of appeals, public charter schools, a forced pooling bill for natural gas development, a flatter personal income tax and a “right to work” law during the 2016 Legislative session.
Republican leaders of the House and the Senate gave a broad sketch of their plans Friday, while also highlighting their accomplishments during last spring’s session, the first controlled by Republicans in 83 years.
House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, and Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, told the state Chamber of Commerce at the group’s annual summit that they were focused on a pro-business, pro-growth agenda.
“What got advanced was virtually a page out of the playbook of the Chamber,” Cole, who is running for governor, told the crowd gathered at The Greenbrier resort. “It was exactly the Chamber’s agenda, as it should be. The Chamber represents businesses, businesses are the job creators.”
The Chamber, a major donor to legislative Republicans, touted more than a dozen bills passed in 2015 that it had championed, many related to reforms to the state’s legal system.
Armstead would like to go further in 2016, and said a new intermediate court of appeals is “at the top of our list.”
An intermediate appellate court is a longtime goal of both the Chamber and Republicans, usually the party that advocates for smaller government. They argue that the state Supreme Court is too busy to handle appeals coming straight from trial courts. Opponents argue that an intermediate court is an unnecessary cost that would prolong court battles.
Cole said that West Virginia is one of only seven states that do not have charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. He said legislative leaders spent too much time last legislative session trying to get bipartisan support for a charter school bill, but would not do the same in 2016.
“Any way that we can get to student achievement we need to do it,” Cole said. “I hope it’s with bipartisan support and if it has to be the first one without it, I think it’s important for West Virginia.”
The state’s two teachers unions, among others, oppose charter schools, arguing they would lead to a two-tiered system with exclusive schools for privileged students and leave poor students behind.
Armstead said they would look for “creative” ways to try to address West Virginia’s beleaguered roads, calling the state’s current road funding system — relying entirely on gas taxes and DMV fees — “antiquated.”
He said raising DMV fees was “going to be a hard sell,” and said maybe counties and cities could take on a larger role. Some of the DMV fees have not been raised since the 1970s; the Legislature agreed to raise them in 2011, but then-acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, in the midst of a special election to keep his seat, vetoed the bill.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said the Legislature would push hard to pass “right-to-work” legislation that allows employees in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying union fees, even if they are covered by union-negotiated contracts.
“This is not an easy political lift,” Carmichael said, anticipating what is sure to be heavy Democratic opposition. “This is about freedom of a worker to join a union and not be held as a condition of your employment.”
Employees do not technically have to join a union at unionized workplaces and can opt out of paying for a union’s political activities, but they do have to pay a union fee.
Carmichael argued that passing a right-to-work law would help attract businesses to West Virginia. There are 25 right-to-work states; Virginia is the only one of West Virginia’s bordering states among them.
House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, said the Legislature would try again to pass a forced pooling bill (which supporters call “lease integration”) to facilitate gas drilling.
A pooling bill would require mineral owners to cede access to their property for drilling, even if they object, if 80 percent of surrounding owners sign leases. While owners would essentially have their property used without their permission, they would be guaranteed at least a 12.5 percent royalty payment for gas taken from their land.
In a surprise development, a pooling bill died on the last day of last year’s legislative session when the House’s most conservative members joined with the House’s more liberal Democrats to summon 50 votes and deadlock the bill.
On Wednesday, the Chamber heard from a panel of four natural gas executives, all of whom pushed for a pooling law in West Virginia.
“Having legislation that permits the efficient and economic development of this huge resource we have is extremely important,” Shott said.
House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, who is leading an ongoing Legislative study of tax reform West Virginia, praised conservative economist Arthur Laffer’s larger ideas without getting into specifics.
On Wednesday, the Chamber heard a presentation by Laffer, who recommended the abolition of the progressive income tax, in which wealthier people pay a higher rate.
Nelson said legislative leaders would aim for a flatter income tax, with two or three different tax rates based on a person’s income, instead of the five the state has now.
He said the goal was a broader base of taxpayers, coupled with fewer tax credits and deductions and perhaps lower rates.
“I think we heard everything from Dr. Laffer the other day and we’re going down his path,” Nelson said.
Reach David Gutman at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5119 or follow @davidlgutman on Twitter.