COVID-19 is on the mind but not immediately in rules and procedures among West Virginia legislative majority leaders, they said Friday.
A spike in COVID-19 cases in the Mountain State has not changed the plans for lawmakers in how they hope to operate during their 2022 regular session, which begins Wednesday.
Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said they would be willing to consider and adopt COVID-19 protections for lawmakers to abide by during the session should the virus spread further.
“We’re starting to process next week under the assumption that will be business as usual up and until circumstances warrant some kind of change,” Hanshaw said. “Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying we would not make a change. I’m just saying we are not starting out [with changes].”
The procedures, along with economic development and other legislation that members of both parties said are meant to attract people to West Virginia, were part of a panel discussion during the 2022 West Virginia Legislative Lookahead, held virtually for the second year in a row.
Hanshaw, Blair, House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, and Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, participated in the discussion.
Skaff is the president of HD Media, parent company of the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
More than 4,000 new COVID-19 cases were reported in West Virginia between Thursday and Friday, according to the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
Skaff’s and Baldwin’s positions on COVID-19 protocols likewise haven’t changed from last month, when they and legislative spokespeople talked with the Gazette-Mail.
Wearing masks will be encouraged among Democratic caucus members.
“I am confident, based on the numbers that we are seeing, that COVID will have an impact on this session,” Baldwin said. “I think that’s undeniable.”
During the discussion, the lawmakers agreed that, when they consider legislation, they mean to ask themselves whether a given bill is something that would attract people to West Virginia and help improve life for residents.
“It’s really pretty straightforward and really simple: We want to bring our people home, and we want to keep our kids here,” Baldwin said. “The Senate president talks about that. I mean, this is a bipartisan consensus. It doesn’t matter party, it doesn’t matter location. This is a West Virginia issue.”
Among key economic development legislation is a measure the lawmakers said will be meant to transfer surplus revenue to the Department of Commerce and the Department of Economic Development to develop properties and facilities for out-of-state corporations as an incentive for them to bring their business to the state.
The bill will be on the fast track in the House, where it is a high-priority measure, Hanshaw said.
“We don’t often like to admit it in West Virginia, but the reality is that, in large part, economic decisions about the future of our state are made outside the voters of West Virginia,” Hanshaw said. “So, one of the things we always have to be mindful of is, are we doing what’s necessary to provide the right kind of package to make it attractive for businesses operating outside our state to flow into West Virginia?”
Blair led the conversation Friday by talking about a mutual fund to insure mine reclamation bonds. He said one company owns 60% of those bonds in West Virginia, and if anything were to happen to the company, it would “bring the coal industry basically to a halt.”
“What we’re hoping to do is take out a $50 million loan, just like we did for Workers’ Comp. and Physicians’ Mutual, and make it so that these coal companies, if they choose to, can actually have their own mutual, but they can get the mine reclamation bonds through there,” Blair said. “Basically, it’s an insurance policy for making sure that we’ve got a baseload energy supply that coal supplies and we’ve got the ability to keep the coal industry in the state of West Virginia turning along.”
Skaff said he is glad for all the incentives the Legislature and Gov. Jim Justice has implemented to encourage people to come to West Virginia, and he wants to see similar incentives for people who already live here, particularly to encourage them to stay.
In particular, he proposed payment bonuses and other support for nurses, EMTs, and other health care workers and hospitality industry workers.
Skaff backs Justice’s initiative to support training for more nurses but said something needs to be done sooner to support current health care workers until more could be trained and enter the workforce.
“We’ve got to see what we can do to stop the mass exodus in that field right now,” Skaff said. “What can we do to help keep those people in that field, because we have a crisis?”
Among other priorities discussed during the hour-long virtual session on Friday:
- Blair supports another flat-line budget proposal from the governor, saying his priority remains “right-sizing” state government, and then using money from trimming the government for economic development priorities.
- Blair also wants to remove West Virginia’s ban on nuclear energy. In general, he supports diversifying the state’s energy resources, including solar power, because it would provide more incentive for out-of-state companies to come in and invest in the state’s natural gas industry.
- Hanshaw is interested in legislation that allows for more investment from companies that would use West Virginia’s remaining coal for rare-earth elements processing, saying existing coal seams could be “a source of significant investment and opportunity in our state.” Legislation would focus on environmental regulations, as well as ownership of rare-earth materials and related rights.
- Baldwin said he is “deeply concerned” about the vacancy rates among Child Protective Services jobs across West Virginia, and that he believes the state’s child abuse hotline needs to be reformed.
- Baldwin and Skaff want to be sure state government retirees aren’t lost among the proposed pay raises for state employees this year, saying it’s been decades since they’ve had a cost-of-living adjustment.
- Hanshaw advocated Friday for a funding formula for higher education facilities in West Virginia similar in function to the funding formula for public K-12 schools in the state. Also during his education discussion, Hanshaw said it is a “personal priority” to drum up more support for pre-K and early education in West Virginia.
- Lawmakers are ready to invest money to update WorkForce West Virginia’s computer system after a crash during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020, when unemployment spiked across the country. Fixing the state’s system would be a $40 million investment, Hanshaw said.