CHARLESTON – Elected officials must do everything possible to FEED West Virginia’s economy. To meet that obligation, the final four planks of the House of Delegates leadership’s 2014 agenda intensely focuses on four key areas.
* Strengthening and protecting our families and communities.
* Enhancing and significantly improving the academic success of West Virginia students.
* Capitalizing on the state’s energy industry.
* Development of our economy.
“F.E.E.D. is an acronym for Families, Education, Energy, and Developing our economy,” House Speaker Tim Miley said. “These areas will be the filtering system through which we will evaluate legislation: Does it benefit families and/or our communities? Does it expand academic opportunities for our students and provide much-needed support to our educational system? Does it bolster our state’s energy industry? Does it spark economic development in a meaningful way?”
The first two letters of the acronym will involve several pieces of legislation.
“The safety of our families and communities must be the bedrock upon which we build successful communities,” Speaker Miley said. “We envision several measures to maximize the safety of our families, including some proposals that resulted from the work of a newly formed House committee.”
In recognition of the need to focus on protecting the most vulnerable in our society, a committee made up exclusively of the female members of the House of Delegates, the Crimes Against Children Committee, was created to focus primarily on protecting the children of our state.
“All 21 women serving in the House got together often as a caucus during the 2013 regular session, and we decided that issues and laws addressing crimes against children urgently needed further attention,” said Delegate Linda Philips, who chairs the committee. “We have met throughout the past year during the monthly interim sessions, and have learned a great deal about what should be done legislatively to help better protect our children.”
One area in which the children of our state is most vulnerable are from predators who troll the Internet soliciting minors and/or encouraging our children to engage in pornographic acts or in the exchange of pornographic material.
“We intend to enhance the penalties against those perpetrators who engage in such activity so that we can quickly limit the number of people in our communities who engage in these heinous acts,” Delegate Phillips said.
Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, vice chair of the committee, added, “In order to appropriately safeguard our children from these predators, there is a current need for an additional 50 new state troopers and an extra $250,000 for Child Advocacy Centers. Our committee agreed that as we invest more to put away the perpetrators, we cannot forget that the children who have been harmed need treatment.”
The State Police also is in need of funding for support and services that it provides to local county and municipal law enforcement agencies.
“We believe finding a way to properly fund the State Police’s efforts is essential to the fight against child abuse and exploitation, " Philips said. “I am confident we can divert funding from within existing revenue sources.”
In order to provide strong families and communities, every worker must make a living wage to support themselves and their families. Therefore, the leadership proposes incrementally increasing the minimum wage over 18 months by $1.00 per hour.
Delegate Justin Marcum said there is a great deal of support for such a raise among his constituents in Southern West Virginia. He also noted a recent Washington Post- ABC News poll that showed that about two in three Americans say the federal minimum wage floor should be lifted and a majority believe lawmakers should pursue policies aimed at balancing an economic system they think is unfair.
“Momentum is building at the federal and state level to increase hourly base pay,” Marcum said. “We should do what we can to ensure a fair wage at the state level.”
Delegate Ronnie Jones, who is vice chair of the House Pensions & Retirement Committee, pointed out West Virginia has a large population of retirees who are forced to supplement their retirements through minimum wage jobs just to get by.
“When we talk about the minimum wage, we often think of the young people who are struggling, but there are also a great many older workers out there making those wages,” Jones said. “This change would be very helpful to both segments of our workforce, who are doing everything they can to support themselves and their families.”
Delegate Mike Manypenny, who owns a small business, noted that the raise would be incremental.
“Economic projections show that our economy will improve at a rate that will allow businesses to absorb the gradual increase with out any negative effects,” Manypenny said. “In fact, by giving workers slightly improved spending power in a responsible manner and helping provide the means for them to stay in West Virginia and work, we believe this measure will accelerate economic growth.”
Oversight of Health Facilities
Another aspect of maintaining strong families and communities is ensuring that all community health facilities, including ambulatory care centers and women’s health centers, are safe and well regulated.
“We would like to see a thorough review conducted of all facilities that provide healthcare services in any form at the local level and evaluate the regulations and oversight to ensure the safety of all patients,” Delegate Nancy Guthrie, who serves on the House Health Committee, said.
Pregnant Women in the Workplace
Delegate Guthrie noted another significant issue that needs addressed to ensure we develop strong families and communities is to provide for accommodations to pregnant women.
“It is critically important that women who are pregnant, but have to work, be given reasonable accommodations for their condition,” Guthrie said. “That is why we will be pursuing passage of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to protect the rights of pregnant women in the workplace.”
Aged and Disabled Waiver
Another issue the House intends to tackle is eliminating the list of people who are waiting for services under the Aged and Disabled Waiver.
"It is tragic that we have elderly and disabled people in our community who could stay in their own homes if we only provided services to the 2,000 who are on this waiting list," said House Health Chairman Don Perdue.
Fleischauer agreed: "Everyone who can, would prefer to stay in their own home as long as it is safe. "As Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz, there's no place like home, and these people just need a little help to be able to stay in their homes."
Childhood Obesity/Physical Activity
Perdue said it is also time to reconsider the fact that neither recess nor other physical activities are required throughout the year in West Virginia school systems.
“It is imperative that
to maintain the health of our children, they get an appropriate amount of exercise and/or physical activity to reduce, if not eliminate, the likelihood of childhood obesity and related chronic physical issues,” he said. “While their health should be our top priority, exercise and activity are also linked to improved learning, so we feel that should strongly emphasized.”
“To keep West Virginia moving forward, we must have an outstanding educational system that provides excellent teaching as well as having students who are able to excel in the classroom,” Speaker Miley said. “There are several ways that we intend to go about ensuring that happens.”
Along the same line, in order for West Virginia to develop a world-class educational system, students must be provided the incentive to go to college and become teachers in the STEM areas – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
“The goal would be to provide an enhanced scholarships and loan forgiveness programs for students by paying off any balance owed on their educational career on the back end of their education,” Delegate Ron Fragale, a member of the House Education Committee and retired educator, said. “Moreover, there needs to be protection to ensure the student proceeds to teach school in the West Virginia school system and stay a minimum of seven years.”
To further emphasize the STEM areas of education, legislators should consider expanding and enhancing access to scholarships for students going into majors within those STEM areas, even if they don't intend to become teachers in those areas.
“Once again, the enhancement must come on the back end and paid over a set period of time if that student graduates college and begins work in West Virginia, as a resident of the state, in one of the STEM areas,” Fragale said.
The current teacher shortage crisis also must be addressed.
“We intend to find ways to incentivize teachers to continue teaching beyond available retirement age,” House Education Vice Chairman David Perry said. “We have some wonderful educators here in our state who are able to retire at a relatively young age. We should do what we can to entice them to keep teaching.
“It is imperative to help solve the looming teacher shortage.”
Finally, students can't learn if they're not in school.
Accordingly, the state must provide funding to ensure that all county school systems have an adequate number of juvenile probation officers to address truancy issues.
“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of combating truancy,” said Delegate Tony Barill, a former county sheriff and magistrate. “First and foremost, we must help create a structure that gives school, law enforcement and court officials the best opportunity to work with parents to keep children in school.”
Energy and Developing the Economy will be presented and discussed tomorrow, along with any follow up questions by reporters .