CHARLESTON, W.Va. — It’s hard being a super minority, but Democratic lawmakers in the West Virginia Legislature believe they can get Republican support for many of their top priorities this year.

Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, and House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, held a press conference Thursday morning at the Capitol to lay out the legislative agenda for Democrats in the Senate and House of Delegates.

Democratic lawmakers make up 11 members in the 34-member Senate and 22 members in the 100-member House of Delegates. Democratic lawmakers held the majority in the Legislature for more than 80 years until Republicans took the majority in both bodies after the 2014 midterm elections.

Now Republicans hold supermajorities in the House and Senate, giving them greater flexibility to move their legislative priorities. But Skaff and Baldwin believe that many of the items Democrats want to see make it through will also interest Republicans.

“These are bipartisan issues. These are nonpartisan issues,” Baldwin said. “These are bread-and-butter issues that everybody deals with each and every day and they ought to be bipartisan.”

“What we've done as a Democratic caucus collectively in the Senate and House is worked together to put our initiatives and priorities first,” Skaff said. “There are some things that we agree with. We might just have a different way to get there.”

Democratic lawmakers want to continue work done by the Legislature over the last several years to expand broadband internet to rural areas, as well as make broadband more affordable and allow open access to prevent one company from securing a monopoly on internet service. The state is pulling down millions of dollars in federal COVID funds and infrastructure funds for broadband expansion.

“Everybody I talk to gets that and says that's their top priority: affordable, reliable broadband,” Baldwin said.

“There are still places in this state as of right now that don't have a connection,” Skaff said. “What is it going to take to get that last mile?”

After several years of focus on charter schools and education savings accounts by Republicans, Democrats want to see more focus on public education, starting from birth to higher education, with a college system modeled after North Carolina when it comes to job training and preparation for college. They also want to see salaries for teachers and school service personnel increase to compete with surrounding states.

“Look at what North Carolina did. North Carolina made higher education a priority, and now look where their economy is,” Baldwin said. “Look where their state is. They put top-notch university and technical schools in place, and now their economy is able to sustain that as a result.”

“Let's continue to help our teachers out,” Skaff said. “Democrats have been leading the charge every year to bring a fair playing field for our teachers in the education system, in conjunction with our neighboring states.”

While the Democratic minority supports the 5% pay raise for public employees and 2.5% one-time bonus proposed by Gov. Jim Justice, Baldwin and Skaff said their caucus also supports an increase in benefits for retired public employees. It also supports more funding and pay for Child Protective Services, which is understaffed and overworked, they said.

“We’ve got to put kids first,” Baldwin said. “I've been meeting with CPS workers lately to understand what it's like and what they go through on a daily basis. I'll tell you very frankly, I left those meetings as depressed as I could be. The things that they face each and every day and the things that our kids face each and every day that we don't have any idea what they go through are absolutely heartbreaking.”

Democrats are supportive of the recent major economic development announcements with new manufacturing companies coming to the state and taking advantage of a new tax credit passed in a special session earlier this week. But caucus members also want to see more done to support long-established businesses in the state. They support policies to get more West Virginians back into the workforce, such as more job training opportunities.

With the news of Gov. Jim Justice’s COVID-19 infection and with hospitalizations for COVID in the state climbing again, Democrats want to do more to recruit and retain nurses and first responders.

“We have a crisis right now. Nurses are leaving the field at record pace, especially here in West Virginia. All of our medical professionals in West Virginia are leaving,” Skaff said. “They're short staffed. A record number of traveling nurses are coming into West Virginia. What are we doing?”

Skaff and Baldwin also are concerned about young people leaving the state because of the lack of non-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community. Democrats support adding these protections to housing and employment laws and the state Human Rights Act. They also oppose efforts by Republicans to pass laws stripping the ability of cities and towns to pass their own non-discrimination ordinances.

“You see some of the cities across West Virginia that are thriving and doing things like South Charleston, Charleston, Morgantown and Huntington,” Skaff said. “These are the cities that continue to grow because they're forward thinking. When you talk about non-discrimination, enough is enough.”

“We've got to pass non-discrimination laws to ensure that you can't lose your job or lose your housing because someone happens to disagree with who you love,” Baldwin said. “Business wants this. Faith leaders want this. The people of West Virginia want this.”

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