By MATTHEW UMSTEAD
9:17 PM EST, February 1, 2013
Education reform, substance abuse treatment, related incarceration costs and state budget cuts were among the most heavily discussed issues at the 2013 Legislative Outlook luncheon at the Holiday Inn in Martinsburg.
About 150 people turned out for the annual Martinsburg-Berkeley County Chamber of Commerce program, which featured remarks by state Sens. John Unger, D-Berkeley, Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, the Eastern Panhandle’s 10 members in the 100-member House of Delegates and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s regional representative, Stephanie Mathias.
Newly appointed Sen. Donald H. Cookman, D-Hampshire, was in Charleston, W.Va., and unable to attend the 2 1/2 hour forum, according to organizers.
In remarks on behalf of Tomblin, Mathias said the governor is scheduled to attend a substance abuse regional task force meeting Tuesday in Berkeley Springs, W.Va.
Tomblin, who is scheduled to give his state of the state address on Feb. 13, will be announcing a “war on substance abuse” campaign, said Mathias, who also noted the governor’s interest in addressing education issues that prepare students for college and the workforce as well.
Many lawmakers Friday lauded Tomblin’s appointment of Martinsburg-Berkeley County Chamber of Commerce CEO Tina Combs to the state Board of Education.
Unger, who is the Senate Majority Leader, said former Gov. Joe Manchin appointed his wife, Gayle, to the seat previously held by Sheila Hamilton of Jefferson County and left the Eastern Panhandle without any representation on the board for a number of years.
Describing Comb’s appointment as “critical” to the Eastern Panhandle, Snyder said Berkeley County’s student enrollment, the second largest in the state, is equal to the combined student population of 30 of the smaller populated counties among the state’s 55. Jefferson County Schools also ranks among the state’s 10 largest school districts, Snyder said.
“I think we need to get back to letting the teachers teach at what they are experts at,” Snyder said in discussing the education reform issue.
Del. Tiffany Lawrence, D-Jefferson, said the state’s average teacher salary ranks 48th in the nation, with the average starting salary is $32,000 a year.
“To me, that’s obscene,” said Lawrence, who later noted that she doesn’t believe locality pay for teachers would be approved without backing from teacher unions.
Del. Larry Kump, R-Berkeley, said voters also need to be more engaged with local school boards, saying he is advocating that the nonpartisan election for school board elections be moved from the primary to the general election.
Aside from implementing effective substance abuse and drug addiction treatment programs, Kump said state lawmakers need to look at decriminalization for some offenses.
“Why should taxpayers, local and state governments, be squeezed and squeezed and squeezed when there are more better ways to deal with things,” Kump said.
Kump said he also is proposing legislation that would allow individuals who have turned their lives around after a drug-related conviction to have their criminal record expunged if they remain drug-free after a period of time.
Other issues discussed included the variations in gas prices across the state and neighboring states, improving West Virginia’s business climate and the changing political landscape in the House of Delegates. The results of 2012 election swelled the Republican ranks in the House to 46 members, the largest total since 1928. Democrats still control the chamber with 54 members.
“This legislative session will be unique,” said Del. Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, who has been named House Minority Whip.
“There is reason to be optimistic.”
Cowles said the legislative agenda of the Republican caucus — to be announced Tuesday — will be “bold,” but also encouraged continued public input from Chamber members.
Snyder said Virginia’s gas tax is about 17 cents lower than West Virginia, but noted some constituents in the Eastern Panhandle have reported paying as much as 50 cents more per gallon at the pump.
“It begs the question, why is it so remarkably different?,” Snyder said after the luncheon.
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