Today marks the start of the West Virginia Legislature’s regular session.
“The time that we’ll spend here in the next 60 days together goes by really, really quickly,” House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said while looking ahead to the session.
Here’s what seems to be on the legislative road ahead:
Gov. Jim Justice has implored West Virginia residents to tune in to his State of the State address, set for 7 p.m. today.
“Absolutely, we’ll be announcing the biggest tax cuts in the history of this state, hands down,” Justice said during a briefing last week.
Senate leaders have talked about having their own budget proposal and their own tax plan, independent of what the governor wants to do. Prior to the start of the session, the description of the Senate plan blended rebates for a range of personal property taxes along with personal income tax cuts.
House of Delegates leaders and the governor have focused more specifically on income tax cuts.
“I think if the governor comes out strong, I know the House for many years has passed personal income tax cuts — if we can get 50% or more maybe over a moderate, more incremental approach, I think it’s a win for our citizens,” House Majority Leader Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, said on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
Hanshaw hasn’t specified what kind of tax framework he would prefer, but did describe an overarching philosophy that any cut should be strategic.
“What I think is important to realize here is, what do we already agree on,” Hanshaw said at the West Virginia Press Association’s Legislative Lookahead event. “And I think it’s fair to say the House, the Senate and the executive agree that if we are to do anything on tax reform, we want it to be impactful. We don’t want to nibble around the edges and we don’t want to deploy any strategy that’s not impactful.”
The simmering issue of reimbursement rates for medical providers moved straight to the front burner last week when Wheeling Hospital publicly announced it would no longer be accepting payments through the Public Employees Insurance Agency.
Hospital officials said financial challenges have been compounded by PEIA’s 59% reimbursement rate, which is set by the state.
WVU Medicine, which has Wheeling Hospital under its tent, sent a letter to the governor alluding to the possibility of more medical providers following suit. It said WVU Medicine “will continue to monitor PEIA impact and will notify you of termination of any additional hospitals from PEIA.”
The state Senate is lined up to pass a bill addressing the problem today in their first floor session.
Last year, the Legislature considered a bill that would have reimbursed state medical providers for PEIA at a rate of 110% the Medicare reimbursement rate. A fiscal note estimated the cost at $40 million.
The state Senate passed the bill unanimously, but the regular session ended without the bill passing the House of Delegates.
Senate leaders are planning to revisit that bill from the jump today, along with other bills that passed the Senate unanimously but that did not make it through the House.
“Who didn’t see this coming? We did in the Senate,” Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said at Legislative Lookahead.
“If we don’t do something quickly on that, that’s going to be contagious, mark my words. My name is Craig Blair, and it’s going to be contagious and you’re going to see other hospitals and providers stop taking PEIA — and that cannot happen. We have a duty to make sure our state employees, our teachers and our service personnel have quality healthcare.”
Last year, a bipartisan set of West Virginia lawmakers said experience had taught them the state’s largest agency is just too unwieldy to get a handle on its operations or finances. The total annual budget for the Department of Health and Human Resources is $7.5 billion to handle a wide range of health and social services issues.
Justice vetoed a bill that would have divided the agency, saying a restructuring needs a longer, more careful examination. The governor called for a top-to-bottom review. The result was a $1 million consultant’s report that concluded splitting the agency would be disruptive and recommended the empowerment of a stronger set of deputy secretaries.
This year, lawmakers are back with a different restructuring proposal that would divide DHHR into three agencies: the Department of Health, the Department of Human Services, and the Department of Health facilities.
House and Senate leaders appear to agree on that concept heading into the session. The bill to do so is likely to run early.
“One bill impacts every other bill,” said new House Health Committee Chairwoman Amy Summers, R-Taylor, speaking last week on “Talk of the Town” on WAJR Radio.
“If this passes, then a lot of other legislation, where it talks about Health and Human Resources, those need restructured to say which department it really is. When you pass one thing, it impacts other bills.”
Blair, speaking at the Legislative Lookahead, agreed with that timeline.
“The Senate is prepared to offer a bill from the very beginning that will break it up into three more manageable components,” Blair said. “And that will be the beginning of phased changes if we’re able to do that.”
The other changes referenced by Blair would attempt to address concerns about the institutionalization of developmentally disabled West Virginia residents, the understaffing of child protective services workers, the plight of West Virginia’s many foster care children and more.
“We’re going to get DHHR right. We have that obligation,” Blair said.
West Virginia’s results last year from the National Assessment of Educational Progress were well below the national average and amounted to the state’s lowest performance ever.
Last month, state Schools Superintendent David Roach laid out a comprehensive plan to address reading and math deficiency for West Virginia’s students.
Senate Education Chairwoman Amy Nichole Grady, in her first year leading that committee, has said she will work with Roach to shape policy changes that aim toward improvement. Grady is a fourth grade teacher in Mason County.
Blair has been talking about renewed focus on public education.
“We’ve got to get our education system, our public education system, right,” Blair said. “We need to make it so our teachers can do what they were hired to do, teach.
He continued, “Amy from the Senate standpoint is going to be one of the tremendous impacts that you’re going to see.”
In the House, Hanshaw again said he would support policy proposals meant to bolster early childhood education.
Last year, Hanshaw pushed a bill that would have provided funding for teaching assistants in early-grade classrooms.
That bill was scaled back, down to a pilot program with a $12 million estimated cost, in an attempt to make it modest enough to get through the legislative process. It passed the House but stalled in the Senate and was never taken up by Senate Finance.
Another bill that passed the House earlier this year would have established a goal of ensuring third grade students are competent in reading and math before moving on to fourth grade. There were no specific costs associated with that bill, but it also went to Senate Finance and no farther.