West Virginia’s top two Democrat lawmakers laid out their party’s priorities Thursday morning, calling for increases in state workers’ pay, deterring the consolidation of public schools and mending food insecurity statewide, among other wishes for the 2022 legislative session.
Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, said he left a recent meeting with Child Protective Services workers as “depressed as I could be,” citing a 70% vacancy rate in his home county’s office.
“They’re in a no-win situation,” Baldwin said. “It’s impossible for them to do their job.”
Baldwin’s comments came one month after a legislative hearing where lawmakers learned that before a Greenbrier County mother shot and killed five boys, turned the gun on herself and set her home ablaze in December 2020, a local dental hygienist had contacted Child Protective Services four months earlier to report suspected parental abuse. The claim was never followed up.
For children still in the CPS system, Baldwin said, this must be the year lawmakers hone in on making holistic changes to the system. An audit released just before the pandemic began found that West Virginia Child Protective Services workers, who are mandated by law to investigate child abuse allegations, failed to look into half of the reports of child abuse in 2018 within the required time.
“Those children then are going to grow up and remember, ‘this is a state that didn’t value me,’” Baldwin said. “They’re not going to want to live here.”
It’s a problem that won’t be fixed with a 5% pay raise, Baldwin said, as the starting salary for child services workers is about $29,000. It’s going to take way more than that, he said.
Entering the second year in the Democrat superminority, Baldwin said he’s learned to be patient and always work on legislation with the long-term effect in mind. He cited the 18 bills passed nearly unanimously out of the Senate on Wednesday — all of which passed the Senate last year but died in the House — as an example of the Republican supermajority and Democrats coming together over good policy and without drama.
“So, if we don’t make progress on [strengthening child services],” Baldwin said, “disappointed doesn’t begin to describe it for me.”
House Minority Leader Doug Skaff Jr., D-Kanawha, said the Legislature must take a similar approach to retain the state’s nurses and emergency medical services workers who “are leaving the field at record pace” as the world enters year three of the pandemic. Skaff is the president of HD Media, parent company of the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
A legislative report released this week found that, of students who graduated from West Virginia medical schools from 2011 to 2016 and have finished their residencies since then, only 1 in 5 are practicing in the state. Skaff said the problem has only intensified since.
“All of our medical professionals in West Virginia are leaving because it’s a crisis. They’re in crisis mode right now,” Skaff said.
Baldwin and Skaff said their caucus will again support the Fairness Act, which adds protections for LGBTQ+ people into the state’s nondiscrimination ordinance. They also named food insecurity as a primary issue facing West Virginians. The House created a food-insecurity workgroup last year, which includes members from both parties.
As Republicans have spent the past half-decade supporting the expansion of charter schools, Baldwin predicted a sharp increase in public school consolidations, “on a level we have never imagined, over the next decade in West Virginia.” He said Democrats will work on policy that strengthens the public school system.
Democrats will join Republicans and the governor in supporting pay raises for state employees, Baldwin said, which they hope will turn into support for increasing benefits for state retirees, who are on a fixed income as inflationary prices continue to stick around. Democrats also want to ensure all homes and businesses in the state have access to affordable broadband, an issue Republicans similarly believe is of utmost importance this session.
Skaff said while Republicans have no obligation to work across the aisle because of their supermajority, the two parties found a good working relationship last year, and he believes it will continue into this session. But he said it will be frustrating during days like Thursday, where House Republicans spent hours debating a ban on abortions past 15 weeks, instead of continuing Wednesday’s bipartisan momentum.