BRIDGEPORT — “The Legislature made substantive and impactful progress in the 2015 legislative session and work has begun in earnest on our 2016 agenda,” said Senate President and Lieutenant Governor Bill Cole in his opening remarks during BIC’s fourth regional business forum Thursday at the Bridgeport Conference Center in Bridgeport, WV. Nearly 60 business and policy leaders from north central West Virginia and across the state participated.
“The legal reforms passed during the last session are starting to bear fruit,” Cole said.
He referenced that a major insurance company doing business in the state has informed him that they will be announcing a rate reduction on auto insurance by nearly 6 percent in the near future. “That is just one tangible example of your legislature getting results.”
“We’re going to continue to move the needle for West Virginia and we’re going to do it in a big way in 2016,” Cole stated. “We’re going to take on the hard issues, many of which may have been taboo in the past, but which will make us competitive and bring us in line with other states.” Cole cited Right To Work and Prevailing Wage as policy initiatives the legislature will be considering.
“We’ve got to make changes now,” Cole said. “West Virginia is one of the only states in the country to see a population decrease and we’ve got to reverse that trend. To do that, we need to double down on the things that are working and stop doing the things keeping us at the top of the “bad” lists.
Cole noted his appreciation for BIC’s role in promoting the policies, as well as the political candidates, that West Virginia needs to move the state forward.
Chris Hamilton, Chairman of BIC, framed the challenges facing West Virginia and BIC’s role in spearheading positive change.
“It is all of our duty here today to support those tackling the hard issues and to elect candidates that will continue this trend into the future,” Hamilton stated.
The event featured a variety of speakers, covering various issues.
Eugenie Taylor with the WV Chamber of Commerce outlined the need for passing public charter school legislation. “For those with resources in West Virginia, they have the option of sending their children to private schools which they may feel provide their children with the support they need to thrive,” Taylor said. “However, for the majority of West Virginians without such means, they have no alternative to public schools.”
“This is in no way an effort to replace public schools,” Taylor said. “It is, however, one more tool that can help move West Virginia forward.” Echoing WVU President Gordon Gee’s comments during the WV Chamber’s recent Business Summit, Taylor said, “West Virginia doesn’t have time for incrementalism. We need all the tools in the toolbox to be available to us now.”
Taylor said the Chamber is working to build a coalition of public charter school supporters and encouraged those in attendance to contact her should they like to participate.
Senate Education Chairman Dave Sypolt outlined the challenges he and his committee face in working to improve West Virginia’s education system. “The West Virginia code includes more than 700 pages dealing with education,” Sypolt said. “My goal is to review and simplify the code to create a more student-centered education system.”
Brian Hoylman, Executive Director of the Associated Builders & Contracts, presented on the movement to enact a Workforce Freedom – or Right To Work – law in West Virginia. “An employee shouldn’t be forced to pay dues to a union as a condition of their employment.”
Hoylman cited a MetroNews poll announced on Labor Day which found that 60 percent of West Virginia voters would support a Right To Work law. “Interestingly,” Hoylman noted, “only 30 percent of those polled were republicans, which shows the broad based support this initiative has.”
Delegates Amy Summers and Terry Waxman outlined their desire to improve West Virginia’s healthcare and welfare systems and to implement solutions addressing substance abuse.
Corky DeMarco, President of the West Virginia Oil & Natural Gas Association, provided an overview on the immense natural gas resources under the ground in our region. “West Virginia and our region will overtake Saudi Arabia in terms of oil and gas production when it’s all said and done,” DeMarco stated. “We need the legislature to take steps to assure production continues and that we maximize the downstream opportunities available for economic growth.”
Chris Hamilton outlined the challenges facing West Virginia’s coal industry and the ongoing impact of President Obama’s war on coal. “We’ve lost approximately 6,000 mining jobs in West Virginia over the past several years and a quarter of our production. While that is devastating to working families and our economy, we hope that the trend has begun to level off. Coal will continue to provide a significant portion of America’s electricity into the future.”
Delegate Paul Espinosa, Kathy Wagner, President of the Harrison County Chamber of Commerce, and Barbara DeMary, Executive Director of the Region 6 Workforce Investment Board, outlined the economic development challenges and opportunities facing north central West Virginia and the region.
“The two greatest challenges facing north central West Virginia right now are 1) retaining the businesses we have here today, and 2) finding workers for jobs both now and in the future,” said Wagner.
DeMary informed the group that there are a lot of people unemployed and in need of training in the region. She outlined a federal program that will incent food stamp beneficiaries in the Monongalia, Harrison and Marion County region to begin job training programs or lose their food stamp benefits.
The next BIC regional forum will take place in Vienna on Oct. 8.