CHARLESTON - The West Virginia Legislature began its session Wednesday without much fanfare and now will spend the next two months grappling with budget issues and trying to find ways to improve the state's economy.
House Speaker Tim Miley and Senate President Jeffrey Kessler banged gavels at noon and after taking care of a few procedural items, soon went into recess to wait for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's 7 p.m. State of the State address.
With West Virginia's economy recovering at a slower pace than the rest of the country, lawmakers will focus most of their attention on jobs and business issues.
"It's still about jobs, jobs, jobs and how do we do that and how do we help small businesses," said House Majority Leader Harry Keith White, D-Mingo.
Lawmakers are also expected to approve cuts to the current budget and even more to next year's spending plan as the state faces an estimated $60 million deficit.
The state will likely dip into its $918 million in reserves, possibly as much as $100 million, in order to keep agency and program cuts from being too severe, said White.
"That's what it's there for, to try to help in times like this," he said, adding that at the equivalent of 20 percent of the state's general revenue, it is one of the strongest rainy day funds in the country.
While the budget is tight, House Republicans are hoping to provide tax breaks as a way to help the economy - something that House Speaker Tim Miley has said isn't likely this year.
"We need some bold changes," said House Minority Leader Tim Armstead of Kanawha County. "We're going to find for those changes to our tax structure, hopefully put more people back to work, put more money back in their pockets."
That might be tough, though, since Democrats have a 53-47 majority in the House.
One of Senate President Jeffrey Kessler's priorities is to create a trust fund using tax money from the state's growing natural gas industry. His hope would be to each year set aside 25 percent of any taxes after $100 million has been collected from the industry. The money would eventually be used to help state needs like education or for tax relief.
"West Virginia has had a long and storied history of being a very heavy extraction state, yet we're the poorest state in the union in many respects," said Kessler, D-Marshall. "I don't want to see that happen again since we have another bite at the apple with gas. Had we put a couple cents (aside) on every ton of coal that came out of this ground we'd be the richest state in the union, but we didn't."
While the state doesn't have money for new programs, Kessler said that he wants the Legislature to take up issues like drug abuse, prison overcrowding and building on changes to the school system Tomblin signed into law last year.
Methamphetamines and prescription drug abuse are two areas Kessler wants to address. He wants more money for treatment, saying the cost of imprisoning drug offenders is higher than solving the problem through treatment.
"Prescription pain medications are highly addictive and they just don't hit the ghettos or the poor sides of town anymore. They go from the country club to the ghetto. It is an equal opportunity destroyer and we need to limit the access to these types of things," Kessler said.
He also wants prescriptions required for pseudoephedrine, a main ingredient in methamphetamines.
"If you need more than 10 packs of that a year, for goodness sakes, you've got a bigger problem than a stuffy nose," Kessler said.
Democrats have an overwhelming 24-10 majority in the Senate, but Minority Leader Mike Hall of Winfield said he still plans to raise issues he thinks will help the economy, from getting rid of regulations that slow business growth to reforming the civil justice system to protect businesses from frivolous lawsuits.
"In our state we just seem to have a bad attitude - some of our bureaucrats do - going out and trying to be the police," Hall said about business regulations. "A lot of time the rules are there just because 'I said,' not because it's reasonable."