By Sen. Bill Laird
The 81st Regular Session of the West Virginia Legislature began (last) week when the State Senate convened at 12 noon on Wednesday, Feb. 17. Later that evening, Governor Tomblin delivered his annual State of the State address to a joint session which included the full membership of both the Senate and the House of Delegates. In his remarks, Governor Tomblin outlined his legislative priorities and proposals for the 60-day session.
Despite current economic challenges facing our state, I was pleased to see that Governor Tomblin presented a balanced budget which closed a projected $400 million revenue shortfall in Fiscal Year 2014. These revenue shortfalls were addressed by reducing expenses in most state agencies by 7.5% and by redirecting $135 million in unused state funds. With no new taxes, it is clear that we will continue to maintain a steady course of careful and responsible financial management within the framework of our state government.
As anticipated, Governor Tomblin outlined a number of legislative proposals intended to address improved academic performance in our public school system. In the past year, we have attempted to analyze and apply many of the recommendations included in the education audit as a means to improve the overall quality of our public schools. Of particular interest to me were the series of proposals which were directed more toward early childhood development and academic achievement, including a pledge that all children will be reading on grade level at the end of the third grade, requirements that every new elementary school teacher would be specially trained in reading, and that all counties will be required to offer a full-day 4-year-old preschool program within the next three years. Clearly, an early start is important to strengthening educational achievement by our children.
With the passage of Senate Resolution Number 6 on the first day of the session, the State Senate has created a Select Committee on Children and Poverty. This 11-member committee includes the chairs of major committees and other leaders within the Senate. Senator (Ron) Miller and I were very pleased to have been appointed to this select committee by Senate President Kessler. According to the new West Virginia Kids Count Report, poverty among our children remains as a very serious problem in our state. It is very sobering to know that 25.7% or 1 in 4 children in West Virginia live in poverty. Through the work of this Select Committee on Children and Poverty, I am indeed hopeful that we can begin to turn the corner on such problems as teen pregnancy, childhood obesity, child hunger, and other serious problems affecting children within our communities.
On the first day of the session, a total of 142 bills were introduced on a wide variety of topics of interest to our citizens. Major committees have already held organization meetings as we stand prepared to do our work. I am excited and confident that we can do many good things in the next 60 days to help move our state forward.
(Laird is one of the two representatives from the 10th District in the West Virginia Senate.)