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Democratic legislative leaders unveil agenda items

CHARLESTON – They may be small in number this legislative session, but Democratic lawmakers in the House of Delegates and state Senate still have public policy goals the next 54 days.

Leaders of the House and Senate Democratic caucuses announced their platform for the 2021 legislative session Monday during a press conference.

“We want to focus on continuing to put West Virginians first while creating opportunities for all West Virginians to stay, rebuild, and succeed,” said House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha. “You are going to see a list of bills and policies that all of our members are going to work on this session that will fit into these three categories to focus on putting West Virginians first and creating the right priorities that affect all West Virginians — not just a certain few.”

Democratic lawmakers want to focus on legislation that will help keep young graduates from leaving the state. For House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, that means helping ensure the PROMISE scholarship is protected and improved. Fluharty said he benefited from the PROMISE and he wanted to make sure Republicans leave it alone when considering possible budget cuts to make room for a personal income tax phase-out.

“Young people are not staying. They’re leaving in droves to other states that offer opportunity and jobs and fulfillment in the quality of life,” Fluharty said. “(The PROMISE Scholarship) must be a priority again. For Democrats, it is a priority. We have a series of legislation set to introduce to keep young people here, fulfill the PROMISE and increase the PROMISE for those who have earned it, particularly the fields of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) which we must focus on in the state of West Virginia.”

Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, said that infrastructure improvements need to be a higher priority for lawmakers. While there is bipartisan support for broadband expansion for underserved parts of the state, Baldwin said more money needs to be dedicated to improving water quality.

“We’ve got to rebuild our infrastructure, our water and sewer systems, our roads, our broadband,” Baldwin said. “We’ve also got to rebuild our standards for clean water. Every year that I’ve been here, there’s been an effort to try and weaken our water quality standards, and that’s the last thing that we can afford to do with rebuilding this state. So, we’re going to fight once again to maintain our clean water standards.”

Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha, said instead of phasing out the personal income tax and raising taxes that could come down heavier on low-income earners, the state should consider providing tax relief to small businesses, working families, and minorities

“What the Republicans want to do doesn’t create jobs. Not one,” Lindsay said. “What we seek to do is pursue policies that raise up all of West Virginia so that they can achieve their opportunities and dreams to provide for their family to be productive.”

Other policy priorities include adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s Human Rights Act, increased funding for rural hospitals through better Medicaid and PEIA reimbursement rates, bills to encourage healthy living, and allowing for vocational and technical training in middle schools.

Democratic lawmakers have the smallest minorities since Republicans took the majority in the House and Senate in 2015. The 100-member House has 23 Democrats and the 34-member Senate has 11 Democrats, giving both bodies Republican supermajorities. Skaff said Democrats are willing to work with Republicans and find common ground, while standing up when it is warranted.

“The majority party controls the agenda. They really drive this ship so to speak,” Skaff said. “But we, as your minority caucus, are determined to make sure not only that the people’s voices are heard, but that we hold them accountable for their actions and the priorities that they choose to focus on during this session.”

Baldwin said Democrats would like to see a more diverse statehouse and would be working to ensure that the Republican majority gets reduced in 2022.

“We also need to rebuild our Legislature,” Baldwin said. “Our priorities are in the wrong place. We don’t look like West Virginia. We need more women. We need more working people. We need more diversity. We need to look like West Virginia. So that’s how we plan to rebuild this state.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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