CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) – Lawmakers in West Virginia are gearing up to get to work on a slew of legislative items.
House and Senate leadership say at the top of that list — an across the board, 5% pay boost for state workers. House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, says those raises go hand in hand with helping keep workers to care for children who need them most.
“I think specifically about the children cared for by DHHR,” Hanshaw said. “We cannot tolerate a double-digit vacancy rate and an incredibly high turnover rate among the people whose job it is to care for the most vulnerable kids in our state.”
“We’ve got great people in some of those jobs now, but we want to keep them there,” added Sen. Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha. “If we don’t keep up with inflation, if we don’t keep up and stay competitive, nature’s nature and you’re going to be drawn to a better lifestyle if someone can pay better.”
Next up will be spending $6 billion in federal infrastructure funds.
“We want to be judicious about how we spend that,” Hanshaw said. “We want to be thoughtful about it, and spend it in a way that really sets us up for a 21st-century economy 50 years from now.”
Hanshaw says that means roads, bridges and other projects to bolster the state’s infrastructure.
House Minority Leader Doug Skaff Jr., D-Kanawha, says it also means coordinating the spending with cities and counties.
“What can we do to magnify that?” he said. “What I mean is maybe there are projects that certain communities have some money to get started, but don’t have enough to get them over the finish line. How can we pull some of our state resources together to help them get to their end result?”
Another focus is education, specifically adding teacher assistants to first and second grades when learning to read is critical.
“We’ve put tremendous resources into job training and post-graduate workforce entry opportunities,” Hanshaw said. “None of that matters if a kid can’t read. None of that matters if a student doesn’t know his or her multiplication tables. None of that matters if a student doesn’t have proper face time with a caring adult in the most formative years of his or her life.”
The pay raises, along with a bonus for inflation, and the addition of teacher assistants would come with a hefty price tag — the three items combined would cost about $230 million.
Skaff says those expenditures underscore the need to hold the status quo on taxes.
“Common sense says that if you reduce all of these taxes, where are you going to get all of the money to pay, to maintain it over time?” he said. “We might be able to maintain it for one year, maybe two, but I want to sustain it over the long haul.”
Income tax reform dominated much of the 2021 session until it ultimately died with an unprecedented zero- to-100 vote.
Hanshaw says he thinks another run would be difficult to pass.
“For one house or the other to perfect one without the buy-in for the other is just a tremendous expenditure of legislative resources,” he said. “At this time, as we sit here today, I don’t see those proposals moving, but the 60-day session is full of surprises.”
Takubo still supports eliminating the income tax, but agrees the focus will be elsewhere this session. He said the Senate will turn its attention to a referendum that could eliminate the personal property tax in November — a tax that creates significant revenue to counties and school systems.
“Obviously, counties are going to be very concerned,” he said. “They don’t want their budgets hurt. And we don’t either. And so we have mechanisms in place to make sure that the counties are whole. In fact, many counties will do better with the new plan.”
The Senate also expects to look at economic development. That includes legislation related to natural gas, carbon capture and drone technology — essentially prepping West Virginia to welcome the drone delivery industry as new technologies emerge.
Skaff also expressed concern about social issues dominating the agenda, yet majority leadership did not mention that as a focus.
Lawmakers also expect to look at criminal justice reform and ways to alleviate the state’s nursing shortage.
Takubo mentioned a plan to start training nurses as early as high school, while Skaff says Democrats will introduce tax breaks for choosing to enter the profession.
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