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A little education, a little correction to corrections

THE just-completed regular session of the West Virginia Legislature had its share of successes.

The two most notable achievements were both set forth by Gov. Tomblin: reforms in public education and corrections.

The governor and lawmakers came to terms earlier in the session on Senate Bill 359, a comprehensive plan to improve public education. The bill, which the governor has already signed into law, brings some commonsense changes to our schools.

Principals, superintendents and faculty representatives are now free to hire the most qualified teacher, rather than simply the person with the most seniority.

The school year must include 180 days of instruction. (County systems often fall short now.) And all children must be proficient in reading by the third grade.

Senate Bill 371 is a sweeping reform of the state's criminal justice system to relieve overcrowded jails and prisons.

The changes include supervision and substance abuse treatment for inmates when they are released. Additionally, a judge can decide to release a non-violent offender six months early into a supervised program.

The goal is to reduce the high recidivism rate, thus slowing the rapid growth in the state's prison population. The program has worked in Texas, which provided a model for this legislation.

Tomblin deserves credit for proposing new ways to approach old problems, and then sticking to his guns in the face of opposition, particularly on the education reform bill.

However, the session had some notable failures as well.

Nothing of significance happened that will have a direct impact on the state's economy.  West Virginia continues on a boom-bust cycle, depending on how coal and natural gas are doing, and currently neither is booming.

More power plants are switching from coal to natural gas because gas is cheaper and triggers fewer environmental regulatory hurdles. But the low price for gas means the rush to drill into the Marcellus shale has slowed.

Depending on whom you talk with, the state has multiple challenges to economic development: a shortage of flat, industrial-sized plots of land; an antiquated tax code; a dearth of skilled workers; a legal climate hostile to business, on and on.

The education reforms, if successful, should help prepare West Virginians for the workforce, but beyond that the governor and this session of the Legislature were largely silent on economic issues.

Sadly, the one bill that actually would have triggered development failed.

The plan to create a tax-increment financing district near Morgantown to help fund a project that includes a new WVU baseball stadium, office and retail space and a new interchange to I-79, died on the last night.

Frustratingly, the bill collapsed largely because of differences between House and Senate leaders over an unrelated bill affecting the salaries of county magistrates. The horse trading approach that often works under the Capitol dome failed this time.

Lawmakers remain in town this week working on the budget, so there's still time to come to terms on both bills and have a brief special session the following week. It's doubtful, however, that Tomblin will want to keep lawmakers around for too long.

Developers say the ballpark project is a $250 million deal that would create 1,100 construction jobs and another 1,500 permanent jobs, but that's all in jeopardy. The whole concept may collapse now.

Yes, there's plenty of finger-pointing over who is to blame, and there might be too many hard feelings among lawmakers to sort it out now.

Unfortunately, on the one bill that actually would have created jobs and spurred economic development, there was a strikeout under the dome.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The show can be heard locally on WCHS 580 AM.


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