By RICK THOMPSON
CHARLESTON -- As lawmakers gather in Charleston this week for our monthly meetings, the nation is wrapping up what has proven to be a particularly contentious primary election season.
And at a time when our own state is experiencing unique electoral changes, I'm reminded of how easily the intrigue of politics can overshadow the fundamental work of government, in this instance the West Virginia Legislature.
The 2011 regular legislative session convenes Jan. 12, but as we enter the fourth quarter of the year, much hard work has already been completed and much progress already has been made. Legislators have convened joint committees each month to examine issues of concern and interest and consider possible legislation .
Already, the administration is reviewing tax income from the prior fiscal year and preparing revenue estimates that will be used to prepare the 2011-2012 budget.
West Virginia has certainly not been immune to the downturn in the economy. For the second consecutive year, the $3.74 billion General Revenue budget has been less than that of the previous year. But I believe that we are in a good position to weather the storm.
We will face challenges. Our current revenue estimates show a $200 million shortfall as a starting point, with variables such as our indebted retirement systems and Medicaid. We assume there will not be the same level of federal stimulus funds to "backfill" previous one-time reductions.
Thankfully, West Virginia maintains a strong Rainy Day Fund that is just over $600 million, prompting recent improved bond ratings.
I am optimistic that we can once again put together a fiscally sound budget, and am confident we will continue to provide necessary services while paying down the long-term debt – without raising taxes.
Lawmakers are monitoring the status of our Medicaid and Unemployment funds, two major programs regularly being adjusted.
We are looking at how best to expand the state's broadband infrastructure and fund the state's roadway system.
While improved Westest and SAT scores are encouraging, our five joint education committees and subcommittees are continuously scrutinizing teaching methods and outcomes and work closely with state and local educators on initiatives to foster innovation.
A subcommittee has been examining the complex questions surrounding natural gas extraction from the vast Marcellus Shale reserve underneath our state – including its economic potential, environmental effects and the treatment of property and mineral rights owners.
There are a variety of health care issues before us, not the least of which is how our state will handle directives sent from Washington via the new health care act.
We are seeking a way to better support firefighters and find a solution to their insurance dilemma, and our Judiciary Committee will likely endorse several measures to address jail and prison overcrowding.
I also would like to see the Legislature reconsider legislation adopted by the House of Delegates last session that would have strengthened ethics requirements for public officials. This legislation reflects the goal of openness and accountability that I and members of my leadership team have long held.
Since the House of Delegates started streaming audio of floor sessions and committee meetings last session, I hope that more people have been following our work. In fact, now that the Senate is preparing to start streaming audio as well, people should be able to monitor the progress of all of the interim committees starting next month at http://www.legis.state.wv.us/live.cfm.
In talking to constituents, I often refer to the time-honored quote, "A politician thinks of the next election, a statesman of the next generation." Each and every one of us, particularly during these troubled times, owe it to our constituents to be statesmen and women rather than politicians.
I encourage those I meet to ignore the political rhetoric that flows so freely these days – to instead take a closer look at the actual work of state government. It is that work that affects the lives of every West Virginian, and generations to follow. That is what truly matters.
Thompson, D-Wayne, is speaker of the West Virginia House of Delegates. To contact Thompson, write to him at Building 1, Room 228-M, 1900 Kanawha Blvd. E., Charleston, 25305 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 304-340-3210.