By Senator Stephen Baldwin
One “legislative session wrap-up” wasn’t enough to cover all the issues folks care about! If your calls, emails, and questions at the grocery store are any indication, you are interested in more information on bills I didn’t cover in the last column. Hopefully, this helps.
BROADBAND FUNDING. Most folks assume the legislature put money for broadband in the budget this year, but that’s not true. Zero funds were put into building broadband.
BROADBAND COUNCILS. Instead of relying on big companies or the state to solve our problems for us, I’m inviting counties and municipalities to establish local broadband councils with community leaders. Fayette, Greenbrier, Pocahontas, Raleigh, and Summers are all considering or operating local councils. If you’d like to be involved or to learn more, be in touch! The more organized we are locally, the better positioned we will be as federal funds come down.
STATE PARK DISCOUNTS FOR VETS. SB586 provided discounts for veterans and active duty military at our state parks. I proudly sponsored the bill, and it passed the Senate unanimously. Unfortunately, it died in the House of Delegates. They refused to put it up for a vote and gave no reason. Supporting our veterans and military ought to be nonpartisan and common sense. They give everything for us; we owe them our gratitude. I will introduce it again next year.
SCHOLARSHIPS FOR SERVICE. SB610 provided scholarship funds for students who provide service to West Virginia. I sponsored this bill also with my friend Sen. Bill Hamilton (R-Upshur), and it also passed the Senate. It also died in the House, after they said it wasn’t necessary. If we want to retain young people who are trained and willing to help our state…and we don’t have to spend a dime to do it…then this bill is absolutely necessary. We will fight for it again next year.
POLICE PAY RAISE. A budget amendment to provide a $2,000 across the board payraise for state police was defeated in floor vote by the supermajority in the final days of session. Police are underpaid in West Virginia. If we want top-level talent, we have to pay better. The supermajority argued that it cost too much. It cost $1.2 million, which is a worthy investment in those who put their lives on the line each day to protect us.
FIRST RESPONDER PTSD. After a five-year battle, Del. Chad Lovejoy’s bill allowing first responders to collect worker’s compensation for PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) passed and was signed by the governor. We live in a day and age where more first responders die of suicide than in the line of duty. They endure traumas on a regular basis. Very glad the legislature took this positive step forward this year!
EDUCATION REFORM. Several education reform bills passed the legislature in the first two weeks of the session. HB2012 expands charter schools, including the creation of multiple virtual charter schools. (I thought we all agreed virtual education didn’t work this year, yet the supermajority doubled down and expanded into the future.) HB2013 provides $4,600 directly to parents who want to homeschool or send their kids to private school. In total, these bills could end up costing over $300 million. Since these passed so long ago, a number of folks asked me if they became law? Yes, the governor signed both after the supermajorities passed the bills.
“OUT OF TOUCH”? Folks often ask me how legislators in Charleston can be “so out of touch” with the concerns of people back home. They say something like, “Why do they pass these bills nobody wants and kill bills we the people do want?” I think a few things are at play. One, legislators are representing their people back home. It may be a small slice of those they represent, as we only seem to talk to people we agree with these days, but they are generally doing what they think is right. Two, a small slice of the population elects our legislators. Those who shout the loudest are controlling the conversation. Three, lobbyists are extremely powerful. They find ways to get what they want.
How can we turn things around and ensure legislators are “in touch” with those they represent? Elect good human beings. Regardless of which party they’re in. Elect people who will read bills and think about consequences and ask you what you think.
In that spirit, please be in touch. We’ve got a lot of work to do in the “offseason.” That’s the view from the back pew, where it is my privilege to serve you!
(Senator Stephen Baldwin is the Minority Leader and a local pastor. Reach him at 304-357-7959 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram @BaldwinForWV)