After more than 80 years of being on the outside looking in, Republicans officially took control of the West Virginia Legislature on Wednesday, promising to bring prosperity to the state.
During floor sessions that began at noon, Delegate Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, was elected House speaker and Sen. Bill Cole, R-Mercer, was elected Senate president.
After being elected on a 19-15 vote, and a second ceremonial vote by acclamation, Cole said in a brief acceptance speech that it is time for the Senate to get to work to improve the state.
“To put it bluntly,” he told the Senate in a call to action, “the time for studies is over.”
While noting that “the voters of this state demanded a change in November,” Cole reached out to Democrats, saying, “I am confident we all want the same thing, and that is a brighter future for our state.”
Armstead, who previously served as House minority leader, said Republicans stand ready to pass legislation to bring jobs to West Virginia and to change the state’s educational and legal systems. Armstead won election to be House speaker by a 64-35 vote, with Delegate Rupert Phillips, D-Wyoming, abstaining.
“My sincere hope is we work together to lift up our future generations,” Armstead said. “It’s time to work together to write a new chapter in West Virginia.”
Republicans control 64 seats in the House, while Democrats have 36 seats, following the November election that knocked out many longtime Democratic House members.
“We are the ones who are closest to the people, in terms of their relationship with our state government,” Armstead said. “We’re the ones who live in their communities, the ones who see them at the grocery store and at ball games. We’re the ones who truly are their voice at the Capitol.”
After November’s election, the Senate was deadlocked 17-17 between Democrats and Republicans, but Sen. Daniel Hall, of Wyoming County, switched from Democrat to Republican, giving the GOP the edge.
Summing up his vision for the state, Cole said, “It’s time our children no longer call West Virginia the place they visit on special occasions, or the place where they’re from. It’s time to find every possible way to keep our kids home.”
Cole, a Bluefield business owner, said his goals for the Legislature include creating a “legal and regulatory environment that invites job-creating companies to call West Virginia home.”
“We have a short window of time to accomplish these goals,” he told the Senate, “and I hope you share my sentiment: It’s time to get to work.”
Afterward, Cole reiterated his intent to get key bills passed early in the 60-day session, to “put them on the governor’s desk quickly.”
To that end, many of the bills introduced in the Senate on Wednesday have single committee references, meaning they have to advance through only one committee before going to the full Senate. In the past, bills have had two or more committee assignments, usually including consideration by either the Finance or Judiciary committees, before advancing to the full Senate.
Among the single-referenced bills was the first bill introduced Wednesday, to repeal the state’s Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Act (SB1).
Passed in 2009 under then-Gov. Joe Manchin, the law sets benchmarks for state power plants to increase use of alternative energy sources. Although backed by the coal industry and criticized by environmentalists for counting multiple clean-coal technologies as alternative energy, Republicans have long decried the legislation as West Virginia’s version of “cap and trade.”
Cole said he went over the Senate’s legislative agenda Tuesday with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, and said he’s confident the Senate will be able to work cooperatively with the Tomblin administration.
“I believe we’ll find more to agree on than disagree on,” Cole said of the Governor’s Office.
The 19-15 vote to elect Cole as Senate president went along party lines, with the exception of Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, who voted for Cole. Plymale would not talk with reporters after the vote.
Also Wednesday, the Senate elected Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, as Senate clerk. On an 18-16 party-line vote, the three-term senator ousted current Senate Clerk Joe Minard. Barnes immediately resigned his Senate seat, and the 11th Senatorial District Executive Committee nominated three potential replacements: Delegate Allen Evans, R-Grant; West Virginia Farm Bureau President Charles Wilfong; and Summersville engineer Gregory Boso. Tomblin will choose a replacement from those three. The governor’s spokesman, Chris Stadelman, said to expect a choice by the end of the week.
Meanwhile, the Senate re-elected Sergeant-at-Arms Howard Wellman and Doorkeeper Tony Gallo, both by acclamation.
The House has 33 new members this year — a third of the total. Twenty-four new House members belong to the Republican Party, and nine new members are Democrats.
At 86 years of age, Delegate Frank Deem, R-Wood, is the oldest House member, while Berkeley Republican Saira Blair, 18, is the youngest — and the youngest House member in state history.
Nineteen women make up the House roster. Delegate Jill Upson, R-Jefferson is the first black woman from the GOP elected to serve in the House.
On Wednesday, House members bickered for nearly an hour over whether to change a rule and require that bills include statements about how the legislation would affect West Virginia’s economy. Democrats wanted the analysis to take into account seniors, veterans and children.
Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, scolded House Democrats, saying they were spending too much time trying to add amendments to the proposed rule change, which later passed in its original form.
“The people of West Virginia have spoken,” said Sobonya, referring to the Republican landslide in the November election. “They want change. They want a pro-growth agenda.”
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