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House of Delegates leaders describe 2021 session goals, pandemic challenges

MORGANTOWN – State House of Delegates leaders shared their plan for the coming legislative session during a Wednesday West Virginia Press Association lookahead meeting.

It was a virtual meeting because of COVID-19 and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, highlighted the uncertainty hovering over the session because of the pandemic.

Two state legislatures recently convened then recessed because of outbreaks, he said, and those familiar with the Capitol know that it’s a germ incubator in normal times. So for the session that begins Wednesday, it’ll be a “game day decision” for how they’ll conduct floor sessions and committee meetings.

They plan to pursue an aggressive agenda early in the session, he said, because of the uncertainty.

As with the Senate, broadband expansion will be at the forefront, he said, spurred in part by how the pandemic has changed the way people conduct their lives. “The way Americans work has changed fundamentally.” Along with broadband, tax issues for remote workers are on the slate.

The pandemic has led more people to enjoy outdoor recreation, he said, so they’ve been working with Commerce and Tourism on measures to provide opportunities.

Telehealth, barriers to occupational licensing and making permanent some savings and expansion of services that resulted from the governor’s pandemic emergency orders are also in view, he said.

Majority Leader Amy Summer, R-Taylor, said the pandemic drew attention to the functions and funding of county health departments; those will be looked at.

And the challenges of educating kids brought many phone calls to her office, she said, so they want to look further at what options the Legislature can open up.

And – as in the Senate – they’ll be examining the extent and duration of gubernatorial emergency powers and what the Legislature’s future role might be.

Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, agreed with Hanshaw that broadband access tops the list.

Legislation should focus on the people who live here, he said. “It’s very important that we put West Virginians first.” But they also need to give people who move here the resources to succeed.

On the topic of executive powers, Skaff said elected legislators are called to be the eyes and ears of the people of the state. They should have been called into special session to have a role in allocating CARES money and a new round is coming.

The minority will stand against any higher education funding cuts, he said. Democrats also want to ensure students have opportunities to succeed after graduation so they have reasons to stay here.

The Republicans have a 77-23 supermajority and Delegate Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, acknowledged that. “We want to be working together,” he said.

He’s minority party education chair and said the House needs to look at such things as food insecurity, parent coaching for struggling parents and kids’ mental health issues. A proposed Student Rescue Act would provide for a mostly federally funded summer program for kids to make up their learning gaps.

The pandemic highlighted that small business owners need a level playing field with the big box stores, he said. Restaurants face needless red tape and archaic rules.

On the desire by the governor and Senate to phase out the personal income tax, Hirnbuckle said they’re open to anything, but the revenue has to be replaced. That opens the door for an “aggressive look at the cannabis program,” and the possibility of legalizing and regulating adult recreational use.

Based on Colorado’s recreational use revenues, he said, West Virginia could bring in $600 million in taxes.

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