By Phil Kabler
For the West Virginia Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Wednesday marked the start of the 2016 regular session of the state Legislature, a session that began under the cloud of a major state funding crisis, and debate over who can fill the Senate seat vacated when Sen. Daniel Hall, R-Wyoming, resigned to take a job with the National Rifle Association.
Despite the circumstances, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin gave an upbeat tone to his sixth and final State of the State address Wednesday evening, drawing inspiration from “incredible West Virginians” such as NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson and world-class marathoner Clara Grant Santucci, who overcame challenges to excel.
“As we look ahead at the challenges we must overcome this year, we are reminded that West Virginians have never had it easy,” Tomblin told a joint session of the House and Senate. “But we have proved time and again, for generations, what has been true all along — the people who call our state home are among the best and brightest in the world.”
Tomblin’s speech cited accomplishments of the term in office, but also outlined plans to close funding shortfalls for this and the upcoming 2016-17 budget years totaling more than $820 million.
Tomblin’s plan calls for increasing the state’s tobacco tax by 45-cents-a-pack to raise $71.5 million a year, and enacting a 6 percent sales tax on cellphone and landline telecommunications services, to raise another $60 million annually.
Tomblin pledged to commit $43 million of the tobacco tax revenue to increase employer contributions to the Public Employees Insurance Agency, alleviating proposed severe increases in co-pays, deductibles and other expenses for state and public school employees and retirees covered by the state-managed health insurance plan.
“This new revenue will fund PEIA, meaning public employees will not see the dramatic benefit reductions initially proposed for the coming year,” Tomblin said, drawing the loudest applause and cheers of the evening.
However, leaders of the Republican-controlled House and Senate were not enthusiastic about the proposed tax increases, with House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, saying, “I think West Virginians want us to tighten our belts first and cut spending.”
Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, a candidate for governor, said he would be willing to look at Tomblin’s proposals, particularly the telecommunications tax, where he suggested West Virginia is an “outlier,” since most states already collect the tax.
Wednesday’s address was also notable for a massive crowd of union workers and families that filled the entire second floor of the main Capitol, from Senate chambers, across the rotunda, and on to House chambers, to protest what they consider anti-worker legislation that’s been given priority in the Legislature.
Among the first bills taken up in the Senate is a right-to-work bill (SB1), which would allow workers in union shops to opt out of paying union dues.
Proponents cited studies – included a disputed analysis by WVU economic researcher John Deskins – showing increased economic activity and job growth in right-to-work states. Labor, however, sees right-to-work as a way to undermine unions by squeezing their key source of funding.
Meanwhile, the House of Delegates on Friday began work on what Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation executive director Steve White described as the second phase of a two-pronged attack on labor, opening debate on a bill to repeal the state’s Prevailing Wage Act (HB4005).
Current law requires contractors on state-funded construction projects of $500,000 or more to pay roughly union scale wages, using wage rates calculated by WorkForce West Virginia, based on surveys of more than 3,700 contractors conducted this summer.
This marks the second straight year the Legislature has pushed to repeal prevailing wage, a law that dates back to the 1930s.
Last year, legislators compromised with legislation that made major changes to the state Prevailing Wage Act, including moving the wage setting functions from the state Division of Labor to WorkForce West Virginia.
However, legislative leaders were dissatisfied that the new wage rates that went into effect last Oct. 1 did not significantly cut wages for construction workers on state-funded projects.
The House Government Organization Committee is expected to take up the repeal bill (HB4405) shortly, despite a public hearing Friday where the large majority of speakers – primarily union representatives and building contractors – opposed changing the current system.
Meanwhile, the Senate opened the session a member short, with the state Supreme Court slated to hear arguments over whether the replacement for former Sen. Hall should be a Republican or Democrat.
Hall was elected as a Democrat in 2012, but switched parties after the November 2014 elections to break a 17-17 tie and give Republicans control of the Senate.