Rick Thompson won his fourth term as speaker of the West Virginia House of Delegates on Wednesday while the Senate stuck with President Jeff Kessler for the two-year Legislature, following an election that saw the majority Democrats lose at least some ground in each chamber.
Lawmakers convened for several hours to organize and accept November’s returns ahead of the 60-day regular session that begins Feb. 13. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, then will deliver his State of the State address along with a proposed state spending plan for the next budget year.
Kessler, 57, counts public schools and inmate crowding among the more pressing topics awaiting legislators. Lawmakers expect reform proposals targeting each, arising from in-depth studies. They also must balance the upcoming budget by closing an estimated $400 million gap between spending needs and revenues from general taxes and the lottery. The rising cost of Medicaid is a chief culprit behind the deficit threat.
The Marshall County lawyer plans to appoint a special committee to develop a plan for attacking child poverty. One in four West Virginia children live in poverty, the 10th-highest percentage among states, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.
“It’s a common thread or theme throughout all of the other issues we look at,” Kessler said. “When a baby is born poor and stays poor, you get all-of-the-above negatives.”
Kessler first was voted president in November 2011 following Tomblin’s election as governor in a special election. The Senate previously had chosen Kessler as acting president after the state constitution had Tomblin — then the president — acting as governor once now-U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin resigned as the state’s chief executive the previous November.
Thompson, meanwhile, already has appointed a select panel to tackle the audit of the state’s public education system. He also listed schools and corrections among the session’s top priorities, while calling for preserving the PROMISE college scholarship program, improving conditions and equipment for state police and new ways to fund roads amid sagging highway revenue.
November’s voters awarded Republicans 11 more seats in the House, increasing their ranks to 46 of 100 delegates. With the GOP occupying the most seats in that chamber since the Capitol was built in the 1930s, Thompson prevailed over House Minority Leader Tim Armstead of Kanawha County in a party-line vote.
Thompson, a Wayne County lawyer, cited the bipartisan passage of measures during his tenure cutting taxes, addressing mine safety and creating a special business court during his acceptance speech. He also quoted from President Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.”
With Democrats holding 25 of 34 Senate seats, Republicans there had nominated Minority Leader Mike Hall of Putnam County for president. The GOP picked up three seats in the 2012 election.
Senators on Wednesday voted one of their own, Joe Minard of Harrison County, as clerk to succeed the retiring Darrell Holmes. Minard resigned his Senate seat as a result.
The Senate also re-elected sergeant-at-arms Howard Wellman and doorkeeper Tony Gallo.
Veteran House Clerk Greg Gray was the delegates’ unanimous choice for another term. After retirements last year, the House chose two longtime deputies for the other nonmember posts — George McClaskie as sergeant-at-arms and Thomas Hively as doorkeeper.