The legislative session begins Jan. 8, 2020. This will be my fourth legislative session, and I always say, “It can’t get any wilder than last year.” I will not tempt fate this year! Here are several major issues coming our way.
BUDGET — Five months into the fiscal year, we are operating at a $40 million deficit. Budget analysts predict that may end up reaching a $100 million deficit by June. Governor Justice asked all agencies to prepare for budget cuts of around 5 percent as a precaution. I fear this budgetary uncertainty will dominate the upcoming legislative session.
ECONOMY — The budget is contracting because the state economy is contracting. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, we are about to face “the worst performing economy in the nation” over the next six months. Instead of the slow growth we’ve been experiencing, they predict our economy will actually go backwards. This is due to the decline in the energy sector, upon which we remain overly reliant.
WATER QUALITY STANDARDS — The annual push by lobbyist groups to reduce water quality standards (in the name of job creation) is already in full swing. I expect a major initiative aimed at reducing standards this legislative session. Please contact your representatives so they know the people of southern West Virginia value clean water for the sake of family, economy, and stewardship of God’s creation.
PUBLIC EMPLOYEE INSURANCE — This past year, the Legislature worked with the Governor to add $105 million to PEIA reserves to keep costs down. In response, the PEIA Board announced (early this month) that health care premiums for public employees will not increase this coming year and benefits will not decrease. But in order to keep the system solvent, we must find the will to find a permanent funding source. One new proposal which I think holds promise is to allow small businesses to buy into PEIA. Would you do that if you could?
FLOODING — Citizens awaiting HMGP grants from FEMA should be receiving their funds soon. WV Division of Homeland Security told me in September that those funds should start rolling by late September. When that didn’t happen, I arranged a meeting with them and FEMA. They apologized for delays and pledged to work as quickly as possible. Two groups of projects were just approved. They are hopeful all cases will be resolved by the end of the year.
The Flood Committee will consider several bills focused on speeding up the housing recovery process. I am hopeful they will also finally begin considering ways we can prevent further destruction the next time a major flood hits, as state law requires us to do.
FUTURE — My focus this year is on the future. I’ve learned that Charleston usually can’t see past its own nose, focusing only on the next election or the latest controversy. I plan to focus on proposing ways to make our future brighter— equal pay for equal work, put skills training back in public schools, prevent substance abuse before it begins, protect pre-existing conditions, put our fire departments on solid footing, and build the veteran’s nursing home. These are just a few things we can do to secure our future. I also plan to introduce a number of bills about other matters brought to me by constituents. You can follow those on www.wvlegisalture.gov.
YOUTH PAGES — If you know a student who wants to be a page for a day at the Legislature, please contact me. I sent notification to every school (public and private) in the district with an invitation, because I want to ensure every young person who wants to learn about state government has the opportunity to do so.
That’s the view from the back pew. I’ll begin sharing weekly columns when the session begins. As always, tune into my social media accounts for daily updates. Y’all take care!
Senator Stephen Baldwin is a local Presbyterian pastor. Reach him at 304-357-7959 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram @BaldwinForWV.