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Session is most critical in years

December 09, 2002|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

When he is not putting up Christmas decorations in his home or teaching at Hedgesville High School, chances are good that Walter Duke is in a meeting.

Since he was elected last month to serve as a delegate in Charleston, W.Va., Duke, a Republican, has been deluged with requests to sit down with all sorts of groups, from police officers to doctors to economic development officials to car dealers.

It's all part of the preparations Duke and other lawmakers are making for a legislative session that some are saying will be one of the most important in years.

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Legislators will have to tackle medical malpractice, a projected $250 million state budget shortfall and the $2.4 billion deficit in the worker's compensation fund, which affects every business in the state.

State Sen. John Unger, a Democrat whose jurisdiction includes portions of Jefferson and Berkeley counties, said lawmakers may also decide whether to regulate all-terrain vehicle riders and whether coal trucks should be able to carry heavier loads.

Unger said he hopes to find some way to pass a bill that would give county commissioners, through a voter referendum, the ability to order bars to match their closing times with those in surrounding states.

Without hesitating, Unger said the issue of medical malpractice insurance premiums tops his list of priorities.

Unger and Duke may come from different political parties, but both used the same word to describe the situation: crisis.

"You have to do something now. You have to do something innovative. You have to do something bold, as far as reform," Unger said. "If we do nothing, it only gets worse."

If doctors continue to leave West Virginia because of the high premiums, that could trickle down and affect economic development, Unger believes. Without adequate health care for its employees, a business will not want to move to or start up in the state, he said.

Duke agreed, and said it is critical that legislators tackle the issue.

"This isn't a Republican or Democrat issue. This is a health care issue," Duke said.

Duke said he thinks the state has been lax in solving the problem. Too often, he said, state officials wait too long.

"For 20 years, all I've seen is crisis after crisis after crisis," Duke said.

Admitting that it may be because he is the vice-chairman of the finance committee, Del. John Doyle said the budget tops his list of priorities.

"How do we pay our bills? That will be the issue of the session," said Doyle, D-Jefferson. "Everything is second to that."

Doyle said the financial situation is almost as bad as it was in 1982-83 when the state had a 23 percent unemployment rate and had to cut services and raise taxes to keep from cutting even more.

More taxes are probably imminent this year, Doyle said, or, possibly, a reduction of services. Those issues will be discussed and decisions will be made once the session begins, he said.

"What is feasible? I don't know," Doyle said.

While Doyle has been a delegate for more than 10 years, Duke is gearing up for his first term.

To prepare for the session, Duke said he has been reading local and Charleston, W.Va., newspapers and has, of course, been attending meetings.

He called it "information overload."

"I haven't had time to be nervous," said Duke, whose 54th District covers all of Martinsburg, plus points west to Hedgesville. "There haven't been any breaks."

Duke said he plans to retire as an educator, possibly before the 60-day session begins in January. Interim meetings start Jan. 5 and the session starts Jan. 8, the day Gov. Bob Wise will give his State of the State speech.

As for local issues, Duke said he hopes to see a bill pass that would allow Berkeley to have five, rather than three, county commissioners.

Unger said he plans to "bug" Department of Transportation officials daily if needed to find out why W.Va. 9 has not yet been converted to a four-lane road.

"I want to get some answers," Unger said. "Every day, I'm raising the issue of Route 9."

Plans to expand the road, a main artery throughout the Panhandle, from two to fours lanes have been discussed for years. The money is available and all necessary studies are most likely done, yet only minimal construction is under way, Unger said.

Making the upcoming session shaky, is the fact that some key legislators will not be back, Unger said. The chairs of the agriculture, judiciary and finance committees were not re-elected, while the chair of the education committee did not seek another term, Unger said.

Although Democrats control the 34-member Senate and the 100-member House of Delegates, Unger said bi-partisanship will be needed.

"It's going to be a challenge. It's going to take everybody," he said. "This session will be a turning point. Real hard decisions are going to be made."

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