By Matthew Young
With less than a week remaining until the beginning of the 2023 legislative session, area-lawmakers held a public town hall meeting at the Grace Bible Church last week to discuss their upcoming priorities, and hear the concerns of Greenbrier County residents. Participants included Delegates Todd Longanacre and Mike Honaker, as well as Senators Jack David Woodrum and Vince Deeds. The meeting was moderated by County GOP Executive Committee Chairman Ben Anderson. Although not part of the panel, all three Greenbrier County Commissioners were in attendance, as was County Clerk Robin Loudermilk.
The format featured questions from the audience followed by a response from each of the four panelists. The first group of questions pertained to funding and standard-requirements for first responders, to which Woodrum said, “It’s not just a local problem – it’s a problem statewide.”
Although Woodrum stated that no conclusion has yet been reached with regard to funding, he anticipates some movement on the matter during the forthcoming session. One suggestion submitted by Woodrum was that fire and EMS-training be offered as an elective-class to high school students, thus offsetting both the time and expense of training. This suggestion was further supported by Deeds, whose term officially began Friday morning.
“The volunteer-basis may improve if we can continue to develop this in the high schools,” Deeds said. “Funding is always going to be an issue. Most of your stuff is dependent, not only through the state, but also through the counties. I’d encourage you also to talk to your county commissioners.”
Despite not having an immediate solution to funding-concerns, Longanacre expressed his belief that the State Fire Marshal should “incentivize volunteerism” by adjusting training and certification requirements to better meet the needs of more rural areas.
“I’m (also) going to reintroduce a bill this year to try and waive taxes for rural-area fire departments who are volunteers,” Longanacre added. “It won’t help you fundraise. But as individuals, you should have something coming back to you.
Honaker, who serves on the House Fire and EMS Committee, said, “I don’t think you have a problem – you have a crisis.”
“This is more serious than you think,” Honaker continued. “This is a problem and we’ve got to figure this out. This is not something we can just keep kicking the can down the road. People die when there are not volunteer fire departments.”
“The message has to be clear this session: this is a crisis,” Honaker concluded.
Anderson then transitioned the discussion to the constitutional amendment which would have granted state lawmakers the authority to repeal certain property taxes. Amendment 2, which was overwhelmingly voted down by West Virginia residents, was heavily criticized by county commissions, boards of education, and first responder associations across the state for its potential to defund vital services.
“I know a lot of people were happy to see Amendment 2 go down, but I wasn’t one of them,” Woodrum stated. “I think what you’re going to see (during the upcoming session) is that we’re going to go back with a phased-in approach to personal income tax reduction, and a car tax rebate. I am curious to hear everyone’s thoughts on it. It (Amendment 2) was overwhelmingly voted down. In my mind, people wanted to continue paying taxes.”
“I think we’re going to go in and take another approach on how to do it,” Woodrum added. “The governor seems to be on board with the rebate program, so I think we are going to go in that direction. But there is a lot of work to be done, and it’s going to change many times before it gets to the governor’s desk.”
Deeds believes that aggressive tax reform will be “the first thing right out of the gate” during the upcoming legislative session, and Longanacre is hopeful that the current Republican super-majority will be able to “get on the same page” to make that reform a reality. Longanacre then noted he plans to reintroduce a bill which seeks to reduce the state’s gasoline tax by 50%.
Honaker reiterated the decision to not publicly state his position on Amendment 2, saying, “As citizens, whatever your position is, whoever is collecting your taxes is the one you need to go complain to.”
Woodrum then closed this portion of the meeting by saying, “Part of the discussion of reorganizing taxes that I’ve been adamant about is that county government has to be part of that. There needs to be another mechanism. Is the answer maybe not lowering taxes or a tax refund, or is there more of an interest in reallocating the tax money we do collect? That’s something I’m interested in hearing about.”
All four lawmakers then spoke of the need for additional focus on illegal fentanyl distribution, as well as reform within the Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR), the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA), and the state’s education system, before moving on to the final topic of the evening.
“The fight to preserve life,” Anderson said, referencing the controversial abortion ban recently enacted by the state legislature, “that fight does not end with the previous session.”
Woodrum referenced potential legislation which would seek the state’s assistance, “maybe through PEIA or the DHHR system,” with funding long-term birth control. Deeds then spoke of adoption tax-credits, as well as expanded early-intervention services as being the basis for potential bills introduced during the upcoming session, saying, “We want to make sure we try to build back the family values we have here in West Virginia.”
“That’s the goal,” Deeds added. “Right now, and of course it all relates to the drug epidemic too, we have grandparents raising a lot of kids. We need to have a family structure. And that’s what we hope will try to foster that – develop better foster programs and adoption programs that will develop family values.”
The West Virginia Legislature will convene for its next interim session on Sunday, Jan. 8. The 2023 regular session is scheduled to begin on Wednesday, Jan. 11.