CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Senate President Jeff Kessler and House Speaker Rick Thompson each kept the unanimous backing of his fellow Democrats during closed-door party-line Sunday meetings to nominate top leaders for the upcoming 81st Legislature.
With Senate Republicans planning to caucus Monday, House GOP members re-nominated Minority Leader Tim Armstead as their choice after gaining 11 seats in a November election that narrowed the Democrats' share of that chamber to 54 out of 100 delegates. The newly elected members took part in Sunday's 35-minute meeting.
The House GOP leader since 2007, Armstead told his caucus that the House Chamber has never seen so many seats occupied by Republicans in the more than 80 years since the state Capitol's completion. During the 1943-1944 Legislature, the GOP held 44 of 94 seats.
"All of our members are very excited about the opportunities that this provides," Armstead, of Kanawha County, said Sunday of his party's inroads. "They ran very hard on the issues that we all believe are important to the people of West Virginia. ... We're ready to get to work and make those things happen."
The House and Senate will each gavel in briefly Jan. 9 to elect a speaker and president as well as non-member officers: clerk, doorkeeper and sergeant-at-arms. The House must choose new officers for the latter two posts. Fellow Democrats nominated Sen. Joe Minard of Harrison County on Sunday to fill a vacancy as that body's clerk.
Minard would have to resign his Senate seat to take that office, creating a third vacancy there. Sen. Orphy Klempa resigned after Sunday's caucus as he's been elected to the Ohio County Commission. Sen. Walt Helmick of Pocahontas will do the same when he's sworn in as state agriculture commissioner on Jan. 14.
Both Klempa and Helmick are Democrats. Republicans picked up three Senate seats on Nov. 6, increasing their margin in that chamber to nine of 34 members.
Armstead said the House GOP agenda will include an intermediate court of appeals, a targeting of taxes on non-real estate property and changes to the state's public schools system in the wake of a much-discussed education audit. At least some of those topics are also on the to-do list of Democrats, including Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
"With the education audit, we want to see what (Tomblin's) recommendations are," Thompson, of Wayne County, said before his nomination for a fourth term as speaker. "We are going to work his recommendations, and we may go beyond them."
Kessler also cited education changes as well as the budget and inmate crowding as top issues Sunday. Kessler became president in November 2011 following Tomblin's election as governor in a special election. He previously served as acting president while Tomblin, who was president, acted as governor from late 2010 until that time after now-U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin resigned as the state's chief executive.
"I'd also like to take on, and have been following very closely, child poverty issues," Kessler said. "I think that's something that we need to make a linchpin of the (2013) session as well."
Armstead, Thompson and Kessler are all lawyers. Senate Republicans are expected to re-nominate Minority Leader Mike Hall, a Putnam County financial adviser, during their Monday meeting.
Each Legislature lasts two years. Besides annual 60-day regular sessions, lawmakers hold a three-day series of interim study meetings most months during that time. The Legislature will recess from Jan. 9 until Feb. 13, when the 2013 session begins in earnest with Tomblin presenting his proposed budget and State of the State address.