Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the good, the bad, and the budget. Let’s begin with the good news out of Charleston.
BROADBAND BILL. Finally, we passed a broadband bill! The goal is to expand broadband in rural areas which currently lack it through cooperatives and low-cost infrastructure improvements. The jobs of tomorrow require high-speed internet, so this is a great step in the right direction!
SECOND CHANCE ACT. In the final minutes late on Saturday night, we passed a great bill which will allow non-violent felons more job opportunities by reducing their conviction to a misdemeanor after 10 years of good behavior. When I met with a group of high school students in February, they said passing a “Second Chance Act” was their top priority. Why? Because it will allow their parents to provide for their families now that they’re clean and sober. Very proud to pass this important piece of bipartisan legislation!
FIREFIGHTER SUPPORT. Our local volunteer firefighters need support in terms of training, recruitment, retention, and funding. We passed a bill allowing a pilot project to address all those issues. Hopefully some of our local fire departments will be able to participate. We also were able to get a guarantee that training via RESAs (which I was told is quality, affordable, and given locally) will continue as is.
Now to some bad news.
FINE PRINT. I learned a very important lesson on the last day of the session: Read the fine print! Bills change frequently, and the version you read about in the paper or from a special interest group are not the final version of the bill. Several bills came back to us from the Senate that I had voted for initially (such as the Tim Tebow Bill and the Parental Notification Bill) and planned to vote for again, but they changed substantially at the last minute. So I followed the rule, “If in doubt, don’t.” I voted against a couple of bills I’d previously supported because it was impossible to know what all had changed.
Finally, here’s your weekly budget update.
BUDGET. At 12:20 p.m. on the final night of the session, the House & Senate leadership presented a budget that we hadn’t seen before … and passed it 15 minutes later. It cuts our colleges by $40 million, cuts Medicaid by $50 million, and takes $98 million from the Rainy Day Fund. I voted no, because this is the wrong time to cut education and health care; how are we supposed to attract new jobs by making our workforce less prepared for jobs? And with the Rainy Day Fund nearly depleted, our bond rating will suffer greatly. This budget could bankrupt us, economically and morally.
When they passed that budget bill, they celebrated. Legislators began clapping and yelling and cheering! I find no cause for celebration in a budget that hurts our people and deepens our economic crisis.
The governor now must decide whether to veto the budget bill and call the Legislature back for a special session or say to those who voted for this budget, “You made your bed; now lie in it.” By the time you’re reading this column, that decision will have been made and announced.
Until next week, that’s the view from the back pew. Take care!
(Delegate Stephen Baldwin is a local pastor. You may reach him at 304-404-4207 or firstname.lastname@example.org)