Delegate Roger Hanshaw (R-Clay), Speaker of the House, addresses members of the media at last week’s Legislative Lookahead while Senator Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson), Senate President, listens in.

Some of the topics that lawmakers plan to consider during the upcoming legislative session include foster care, establishing an intermediate court of appeals and expanding a law from last year that provides West Virginia high school graduates aid for free community and technical college.

During the West Virginia Press Association’s Legislative Lookahead annual event Friday, leaders in the Legislature told journalists from around the state their priorities for the upcoming legislative session, which begins today.

During a keynote address at The Cultural Center in Charleston, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said that Senate priorities would include addressing the state’s foster care crisis, which he said should “fracture our soul.” West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources officials have said that West Virginia has about 7,000 children in state custody, and that the number has increased by 67 percent since 2013. They have said the state’s child welfare system was overwhelmed by the addiction epidemic.

“When you see these things and you hear these stories, it should touch us at a very deep level such that we make the policy decisions and the funding streams available to solve the problem for our children,” Carmichael said.

In October, A Better Childhood, a national nonprofit advocacy group that wages court battles on behalf of children, along with Disability Rights of West Virginia, a federally funded nonprofit, and the West Virginia law firm Shaffer and Shaffer filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging that West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources has “repeatedly failed the children they are charged with protecting.”

Plaintiffs alleged that without adequate suitable homes, DHHR segregates foster children in institutions, lodges them in temporary shelter care, places them in overcrowded foster care homes, or places them in poorly screened kinship foster homes. DHHR responded with a motion to dismiss, and said that A Better Childhood should have tried to work with them instead of filing a costly lawsuit.

Carmichael also said Republicans want to create an intermediate court of appeals, as well as cut the personal property tax on manufacturing inventory and equipment, an idea he said has been discussed for 30-40 years in West Virginia.

He also said they want to address the state’s low workforce participation rate.

Speaker of the House of Delegates Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said Republicans in the House of Delegates are considering expanding a law that passed last year providing free community and technical college for in-demand two-year programs. He mentioned expanding the program to four-year colleges, as well as the types of programs eligible for the aid.

He also said Republicans may want to reduce the number of regulated occupations in West Virginia.

Hanshaw also said the House Health Committee is looking at additional foster care legislation. Last year, lawmakers passed a bill that gives a managed care organization, Aetna, oversight over the state’s foster care population, which relies on Medicaid. States pay those programs to help cut cuts while aiming to improve health outcomes. Some child advocates worried a managed care organization would be too focused on profit.

He said about 60,000 West Virginia adults don’t have drivers licenses, and lawmakers are interested in working to reduce that number to get more people to work.

He also said lawmakers are considering jail bond legislation, noting that over 50,000 people held in West Virginia jails are people awaiting trial.

“We’re going to ask questions about whether it’s appropriate to use our facilities that way,” he said. “We don’t want to be squandering resources that we already don’t have if there are better ways to do it.”

He agreed that West Virginia needs an intermediate court of appeals.

He said the state flooding committee wants to establish a state resiliency office that would incorporate all involved agencies during natural disasters like flooding events.

Hanshaw also said the House of Delegates recently announced a bipartisan technology caucus, and said lawmakers want to make West Virginia more hospitable to technology companies and expand broadband capability.

In a later session in front of the journalists, Delegate Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell, said to expect legislation requiring opioid settlement money to be allotted by the Legislature. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has said a third of that money should be allocated to his office.

Also during that session, lawmakers said they may overhaul the state’s mental hygiene system, meaning its process for holding people deemed by mental hygiene commissioners to be a danger to themselves or others.

Email: ebeck@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @3littleredbones

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