Kessler remains Senate leader

CHARLESTON – Speaker Rick Thompson won his fourth term atop West Virginia’s House of Delegates on Wednesday while the Senate stuck with President Jeff Kessler for the two-year Legislature, following an election that saw the majority Democrats lose at least some ground in each chamber.

Lawmakers convened for several hours to organize and accept November’s returns ahead of the 60-day regular session that begins Feb. 13. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, will then deliver his State of the State address along with a proposed state spending plan for the next budget year.

Kessler, 57, counts public schools and inmate crowding among the more pressing topics awaiting legislators. Lawmakers expect reform proposals targeting each, arising from in-depth studies. They must also balance the upcoming budget by closing an estimated $400 million gap between spending needs and revenues from general taxes and the lottery. The rising cost of Medicaid is a chief culprit behind the deficit threat.

The Marshall County lawyer plans to appoint a special committee to develop a plan for attacking child poverty. One in four West Virginia children live in poverty, the 10th-highest percentage among states, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

“It’s a common thread or theme throughout all of the other issues we look at,” Kessler said. “When a baby is born poor and stays poor, you get all-of-the-above negatives.”

Kessler was first voted president in November 2011 following Tomblin’s election as governor in a special election. The Senate had previously chosen Kessler as acting president after the state constitution had Tomblin – then the president – acting as governor once now-U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin resigned as the state’s chief executive the previous November.

Thompson, meanwhile, has already appointed a select panel to tackle the audit of the state’s public education system. He also listed schools and corrections among the session’s top priorities, while calling for preserving the PROMISE college scholarship program, improving conditions and equipment for the State Police and new ways to fund roads amid sagging highway revenues.

November’s voters awarded Republicans 11 more seats in the House, increasing their ranks to 46 of 100 delegates. With the GOP occupying the most seats in that chamber since the Capitol was built in the 1930s, Thompson prevailed over House Minority Leader Tim Armstead of Kanawha County in a party-line vote.