West Virginia and Virginia lawmakers gather for Legislative Point of View Breakfast


Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BLUEFIELD, Va. — Virginian and West Virginian legislators came together Friday morning and shared their thoughts about bills passed this year and what could come in the future.

Mercer County and Tazewell County, Va. state representatives joined the public at the Fincastle for the 2024 Legislative Breakfast, a program organized by the Chamber of Commerce of the Two Virginias and the Tazewell County Chamber of Commerce.

The Virginia contingency included Senator Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell and Delegate James W. "Will" Morefield, R-Tazewell. Legislators representing the West Virginia contingency included Senator Chandler Swope, R-Mercer; Delegate Joe Ellington, R-Mercer; Delegate Doug Smith, R-Mercer and Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer. Senator Mark Maynard, R-Wayne was scheduled to participate but could not attend.

After breakfast, the lawmakers took turns addressing the audience. Senator Hackworth spoke first.

"It's great to be here with you this morning," Hackworth said. "You may have seen in the paper just this week that we were finally able to pass and the governor signed a budget, so all of you local officials I'm sure breathed a sigh of relief to get that done and see what monies were allocated to the localities."

Some of the highlights of bills that passed this year in the General Assembly included a shared solar program which would allow electric customers to subscribe to small solar facilities without actually having to put up their own solar panels, Hackworth said. Another bill helped utility and broadband providers compromise on sharing utility poles to expand broadband access. Other legislation will create a study to examine the use of artificial intelligence or AI by public bodies in the Commonwealth and report back to the General Assembly by Dec. 1.

Another piece of legislation will crack down on fentanyl distribution by increasing penalties and making it illegal to possess "pill presses" used to make fentanyl tablets that look like prescription drugs "and kills many, many people a year not just in the Commonwealth but in the nation," Hackworth said.

Delegate Morefield said that Virginians are facing a number of challenges in today's environment. Republicans and Democrats are almost evenly matched at the General Assembly, and the positive outcome of this is that it encourages both parties to work with one another.

"And fortunately as a result, Southwest Virginia benefited tremendously because of that," he said. "Our delegation in the House and the Senate had a reputation for not only working well with our Republican colleagues as far as the Republican members are concerned, but we also had a very good reputation of reaching across the aisle and working with our colleagues. Ultimately we understood that we cannot make this political. We've got to do what's in the best interest of the people who we represent."

It has been said in the national media that Virginia's economy and government are strong, but Morefield said that he bases the public's economic situation on what he calls "the grocery store theory."

"Families are struggling right now," he said. "The cost of goods have increased to the point which it's very difficult to eat and live."

There were no tax cuts in the state this year unfortunately, but fortunately there were no tax increases, Morefield said. This is "imperative" for families trying to make ends meet.

West Virginia State Senator Chandler Swope, R-Mercer, who lost his bid Tuesday during the state's primary election to run for reelection, spoke about his time in office.

"First, I'd like to say what an honor and a pleasure it's been to serve West Virginia, Mercer County and our district," Swope said. "It's been the most satisfying portion of my life. I've built a lot of buildings and hired a lot of people, but there's been nothing more important than being part of the team in the Legislature that's moving West Virginia forward."

"In the last six years, there has been over $13 billion worth of new investment brought to West Virginia through pro-business polices that were started by Bill Cole between 2012 and 2016," Swope said.

West Virginia's budget has grown and seen millions of dollars in extra funds, he said.

"Last year West Virginia's growth rate was the fourth highest in the nation, the percentage of growth rate," Swope said.

Even if federal money is thrown out, the state still experienced a 5% per year growth rate and "that's very significant," Swope said.

Excess revenues are being spent on infrastructure such as highways, water, sewer and broadband access.

"I call that investing, not spending," Swope said.

Delegate Ellington spoke about how well his colleagues work together and about how Swope will be missed.

"One thing I like to say is we work very well in this group," he said. "We're usually on the same page on most things. Honestly, we do have some disagreements, but we do work those out. Chandler has been very supportive, and it's a shame he didn't get back in, but I know he's going to be very involved in what goes on in policies and stuff. We're going to miss him tremendously for that. We want to congratulate him for all the service he has provided."

Ellington said he is currently chair of the House Education Committee, and in other legislative business works on lowering state income tax and is working to make state government fiscally responsible. Bills which were not funded during the Legislature's last session could be looked at again during a special session schedule to start Sunday.

"We've worked on roads," he said. "We're trying to improve transportation in the state. Broadband internet. We've been working on those the past several years trying to improve that technology for the future. Industry. Trying to help with that, bring back manufacturing to the state. Insurance is a big problem with health care and stuff we're trying to improve. Education. K-12, higher education, very important for the workforce in our community."

The state Department of Education puts out the Green Book, which outlines everything the Legislature had done on education. Last year, the Legislature did have the Third Grade Success Act for extra funding for grades K-3 to help improve literacy and math skills, Ellington said. There will be an extra $37 million a year for extra teacher's aides to help students.

Delegate Smith spoke about work on regulations that state's businesses must contend with.

"My goal is to reduce the restrictions on businesses to lighten up on the regulations and reduce the fees that are out there so we can bring more businesses in and just make things about common sense," Smith said. "So that's what my main goal is out there, to make things easier for the community out there and the people who are working with the rules because there is some crazy stuff out there."

Smith said legislation he supported helped get waivers of licensing fees for veterans, their families and low-income people. Another bill will allow home distillation of liquor. Residents will be able to distill up to 5 gallons per person per year. Smith said his goal was to make home distilling a route to entrepreneurship and economic development.

"I have a role in the Legislature guys these folks know pretty well," Delegate Gearheart said. "I ask the questions nobody wants to get asked and I usually point out things to the agencies they'd just rather not get pointed out. That doesn't make you the most popular guy, but hopefully it means that we get the job done."

"This Legislature had a lot of bills pass through but a lot of the action happened on the last day," Gearheart said. One piece of legislation affected everyone in the room, he added.

"As of the coming year a third and a third and a third until it's completely gone, you will no longer pay tax on Social Security income," Gearheart said. "All of us hope we're going to get Social Security, that's going away. Another tax cut has been made, it's a heavy lift, so we've got tax cuts that were passed last year, pay 22.5% less. We have a trigger this year that may reduce that by another point or two, which is the way it was designed."

As the future goes on the public will see some cultural issues taken up in the West Virginia Legislature, he said.

"Some of them we're taking up this year," Gearheart said. "If you have a child this year — Joe (Ellington) knows this — when they get their birth certificate, it is not legal for that birth certificate to say non-binary. Not that it's going to surprise anybody here, but if you're going to have a child, it's probably going to be either male or female. That's what's going to be on the birth certificate, one or the other. It is not going to be non-binary."

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com