The Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce once again hosted their annual Legislative Town Hall to allow delegates and senators to share their thoughts and goals for the upcoming Legislative session.
In attendance this year were Delegates Jill Upson and Paul Espinosa. Del. Riley Moore was unable to attend. Also sharing the head table were Senators Patricia Rucker and John Unger.
Each member of the group took a few moments to share their thoughts before receiving questions from the audience.
Sen. Unger explained that the budget is key for this session. He also said there are ongoing concerns over education, health, mental health and infrastructure.
Espinosa agreed that the budget must be tackled; however, he stressed that economic development is essential to bring more revenue into the state.
“We need to focus on enhancing the state business climate and promote jobs,” he said.
Education reform was also a topic all of the participants spoke on, saying that more local control is needed so that the Board of Education and teachers can do what’s best for their students.
When proposed specific questions, the panel spent a great deal of time discussing the decline in the number of West Virginia State Troopers Jefferson County. None of the group sounded positive when speaking of the need for more funds to secure more officers.
“Law enforcement is a core function,” Upson said. “We need to prioritize and that means other areas will need to be cut. We have to admit that we don’t have the funds to keep the government at the level it is,” she continued.
Unger explained that there are two things the Legislation “must” do and that is provide free public education and provide for public safety. He explained that the cost of living in the Panhandle prohibited troopers from coming here. He also shared that while there are more troopers in less populated rural counties, those troopers must travel in pairs for safety. With that, the extra officers cannot be moved elsewhere.
“We need to get more people in the academy,” Unger said.
As in other years, the panel also addressed the gaming revenues in the county and the need to move away from financial dependence upon those revenues.
The local thoroughbred industry has taken hits in conjunction with decreased funds coming in through gaming. Espinosa said that it is a must to revisit the tax structure that was established when gaming was big and there was no competition.
“The original tax structure was created when there was no competition,” Espinosa said. “You certainly can’t say that now.”
Healthcare and the potential repeal of Obamacare were also topics of the day. Concerns were raised by audience members regarding the affect such a repeal would have on West Virginia citizens.
Rucker, who favors repeal, said, “The expansion of Medicaid will bankrupt our state. We need to make some hard decisions.” She went on to say, “There is a lot of waste. Benefits need to be there for those who need them, but an audit is necessary to determine the waste.”
Upson shared her view that economic development would help the healthcare dilemma by creating jobs where workers can then get health insurance through their employers.
Espinosa shared that he is looking forward to whatever replacement models come out of Washington.
“Whatever we do, it needs to be sustainable,” Espinosa said. He said Obamacare was not sustainable.
The need for a substance abuse healthcare facility was another hot topic Tuesday.
“We need to open our minds to more than jail,” Rucker said as she expressed disappointment in the closing of the Jefferson County Drug Court.
Upson spoke of several treatment options using counter-active drugs during rehabilitation to help individuals fight the drug habit.
Other issues the panel touched upon included the need to develop a stable funding stream for public libraries and how to assist senior citizens with specific needs.
The first day of the West Virginia Legislature in Charleston is Feb. 8.