The Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce hosted a packed room Friday where elected state officials outlined their goals for the upcoming legislative session set to begin Feb. 13.
Each of Jefferson County's delegates and senators took a few moments to introduce themselves and voice their thoughts on the needs for the Panhandle and the state during the upcoming session. With topics ranging from education to poverty, tourism to public transit, the five officials touched on issues they see as important to the Panhandle.
Two new members of the delegation, Paul Espinosa and Stephen Skinner, appeared prepared to jump right in when they travel to the state capitol. Espinosa considers himself a fiscally conservative voice that, he says, is sorely needed.
"We can't let government grow faster than the taxpayers can pay for it," he said. He voiced, with regard to education that was a hot topic for the afternoon, that local school boards need to be empowered moreso than they are currently.
Del. Tiffany Lawrence agreed that education is still a top priority. Lawrence serves on the Education Committee as well as on the Health and Human Resources Committee. She has also been named the Assistant Majority Whip.
Lawrence focused many of her comments on the state of poverty in West Virginia, especially the stark number of 53 percent of all West Virginia students falling under the poverty level.
Sen. John Unger expanded on the poverty issue stating that he has plans to form a committee to address children in poverty. Following the discussion Friday, a press release was issued by Unger's office seeking individuals interested in serving on the committee.
In addition to child poverty, the topic of child safety also received a lot of attention at Friday's luncheon. Sen. Herb Snyder said that "school safety must be about mental health issues. We will fail this nation if we don't capture this moment," he said.
Unger took time to praise the Jefferson County Sheriff's Reserve for their formation of a Reserve Academy and indicated that Berkeley County will adopt the Academy's guidelines as well. The Academy is the first of its kind in West Virginia. Unger further stated that the use of Reserves in the schools may help address some safety concerns.
In addition to the issues regarding children, the group touched upon a variety of other topics including Skinner's focus on tourism and the need to eliminate the practice of no alcohol being served before 1 p.m. on Sundays. Skinner cited the restrictions placed on Bloomery Distillery, an agri-tourism facility opened in the county.
"This is a big deal even in the hotel and restaurant business," he said.
The topic of Medicaid and its possible expansion was also touched upon by the group. Snyder explained that the move may be there to raise the poverty levela nd bring more people in under Medicaid in conjunction with the Federal Healthcare Act (Obamacare) which goes into effect in 2014. Skinner agreed that the expansion is necessary in West Virginia.
"It will advance how we take care of our children," he said. "We cannot pass up this deal from the Feds."
A brief look at gas taxes which, according to Snyder, do not cause the huge gap between the cost of gas in the Eastern Panhandle compared to other parts of the state or even neighboring states, had the Senator saying he hopes for the Attorney General to investigate the issue. The topic of gas prices segued into the topic of public transportation and the need to expand. Unger indicated that the local Eastern Panhandle Transit Authority (Pan Tran) could be much more effective if each entity within the county did not run their own vans or buses.
These topics and many more sure to face the delegation as they head into session. Each member indicated they are already hard at work communicating with constituents on hot topics as well as working on drafting bills and preparing for committee meetings. The delegates and senators will meet in additional public sessions to receive input from local residents with regard to what is or should be of importance in Charleston in the upcoming months.