Lawmakers, lobby groups, university researchers paint tough outlook for legislative session

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SOUTH CHARLESTON, West Virginia — Lawmakers and experts painted a tough budget and economic picture Friday for West Virginia before the upcoming legislative session, stressing the need for basic infrastructure improvements, from roads to broadband Internet.

During the West Virginia Associated Press Legislative Lookahead on Friday, panelists discussed various topics as the state stares down a $353 million budget shortfall fueled by fizzling revenues from coal and natural gas production.

"I think we're at a real turning point in West Virginia where we have to focus on the fundamentals to promote industrial diversification, to make our state attractive to potential businesses," John Deskins, director of the Bureau for Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University, said at the event at Marshall University's South Charleston campus.

Deskins said the labor force participation rate is 53 percent in the state, dead last in the country, lagging the national average by 10 percentage points. Health problems, drug abuse, mismatched labor skills and available employment opportunities are among a tough-to-address mix of problems plaguing the state, Deskins said.

Panelists said the state needs more than a one-size-fits-all approach to improvement because of how different each region is, spanning from the struggling southern coalfields to the booming Washington, D.C., bedroom communities in the Eastern Panhandle.

Sen. Chris Walters, R-Putnam, said he will again float a proposal to expand broadband across the state, though Frontier Communications and other groups have criticized the plan. Walters wants to take out about a $90 million bond for the expansion. A similar proposal was killed last year.

"This is infrastructure," Walters said. "This is as important as water and electricity to my generation."

Del. Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, said lawmakers will likely try to repeal educational standards, even after recent changes that stripped away some major complaints about Common Core. Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said the conversation needs to focus on filling about 600 teaching vacancies.

"We need to put this issue to rest," Martirano said of the Common Core debate. "It is serving as a great distraction right now to the educational delivery model in this state."

Another group discussed a bill to force people to lease their oil and natural gas mineral rights when they are missing or unwilling to participate, and 80 percent of adjacent mineral owners are on board with signing contracts. They would be paid for it.

Del. Woody Ireland, a Ritchie County Republican sponsoring the bill, said he thinks it's essentially now or never for the legislation that died on a tie House vote last year amid concerns about property rights.

The Republican-led Legislature begins the 60-day annual session Wednesday.

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