Legal reform, charter school bills cited at Lookahead event

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By Eric Eyre
The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Incoming West Virginia Senate leaders gave a glimpse into their legislative agenda Monday, saying they plan to push through bills that reform the state’s legal system, but they expect to put off comprehensive tax reform measures until next year.

Senate President-to-be Bill Cole, R-Mercer, said lawmakers’ tort reform package would include restrictions on class-action lawsuits and jury awards.

On Wednesday, Republicans will gain control of the Senate and House of Delegates for the first time in more than 80 years.

“The ‘sue and settle’ mentality is brutal on businesses,” Cole said during the West Virginia Associated Press Legislative Lookahead event in Charleston. “We have a reputation for offering up the big [lawsuit] settlements.”

West Virginia’s reputation as a “judicial hellhole” scares away businesses that want to bring jobs to the state, Cole said.

“I’m not mad at the trial attorneys,” he said. “We’re going to bring a whole lot more businesses and a whole lot more people to this state and give those attorneys a whole lot more things to do, whether it’s forming corporations or performing legal services.”

Cole also said state lawmakers would introduce bills that curtail state government regulations, but he offered no specifics. Cole plans to support measures that “push back the size and scope of government” so it’s a partner with business, “not a hindrance.”

“I realize we’ve been a little bit coy, [not] laying it out on the table and saying, bill by bill, what we’re going to introduce,” Cole said. “If it promotes a business-friendly atmosphere, you can bet we’re going to see it introduced as legislation this session.”

Cole said major tax reform would have to wait as the state faces an estimated $195 million budget shortfall next year.

“I’m looking at broadening the tax base,” Cole said. “I genuinely believe … that jobs by themselves are virtually the solution to everything that ails us in this state.”

Sen. Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, who gives up his post as Senate president Wednesday, noted that state lawmakers have eliminated the food tax and reduced business taxes in recent years, but the cuts apparently haven’t sparked job increases.

Kessler said the state must invest more in preparing workers for jobs. West Virginia has one of the lowest workforce participation rates in the nation.

On the topic of education, Cole said legislators would likely consider a bill to allow charter schools — which would not be subject to the same restrictions as public schools — in West Virginia for the first time.

Cole said the Department of Education overregulates county school boards and teachers.

“We need to take the cuffs off our teachers,” he said “We have to give them the tools and get out of their way.”

Also at Monday’s AP Lookahead event:

| Sen. Daniel Hall, R-Wyoming, said the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee would take up legislation suggested by the West Virginia Coal Association. “We’re looking at ways to make it cheaper to mine coal,” Hall said. “We need to get the price per ton down.”

| West Virginia Revenue Secretary Bob Kiss said Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin will recommend “targeted” spending cuts and using state reserves when he unveils his proposed budget for next year on Wednesday.

The state faces a $195 million budget gap. Kiss said he expects less than $80 million to come from the Rainy Day Fund to close the gap.

Kessler said he would oppose using the Rainy Day Fund to cover the shortfall.

For the past two years, state agencies have faced hiring freezes and 7.5 percent budget cuts.

| Delegate Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, who takes over as House Speaker Wednesday, said he expects state lawmakers to introduce legislation that would possibly remove some exemptions from the state Freedom of Information Act. Public agencies use the exemptions to withhold documents from the media and private citizens. Armstead said he would take a close look at an exemption that allows public officials to withhold “internal memorandum” — typically government correspondence about proposals before a final decision.

| Corky DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Gas Association, and Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie criticized new state regulations on aboveground storage tanks. The Legislature passed the regulations after the Jan. 9, 2014, Freedom Industries chemical spill that contaminated water for more than 300,000 West Virginians.

“West Virginia has overreached in water regulation without solving the problem,” McKenzie said. “We need to focus on the water coming into the [water treatment plants].”

DeMarco said most of the storage tanks are miles away from water plant intakes.

“If industry does what industry is supposed to do, then an incident like Freedom won’t happen,” DeMarco said. “Those guys were outliers.”