By Lawrence Messina
As he prepares to join the executive branch as secretary of Veterans Assistance, House Speaker Rick Thompson believes his final session with the West Virginia Legislature was also one of his best.
The Wayne County Democrat cites the successful measures targeting inmate crowding and seeking to improve public schools, two major issues that have dogged the state for years. Lawmakers also passed a budget amid fears of weakening tax and lottery revenues, while still avoiding the post-recession layoffs and program cuts seen elsewhere.
“Obviously, there are always things that need to be done for West Virginia, and there are a lot of things we passed that weren’t the big-headline items,” Thompson told The Associated Press in an interview. “But for the most part we were able to address, in some respect, those issues that were out there. Those are a lot of major issues to deal with in one session.”
The minority Republicans sharply disagree with Thompson’s assessment of this year’s session. Before it ended last month, GOP delegates blasted it as series of misplaced priorities and blown opportunities.
“I thought we worked on several issues together, during this session and in past sessions, but there’s a point where there’s a basic disagreement on how to deal with things,” Thompson said. “As a member of the Legislature, it is easier sometimes to vote ‘no’ because something is not perfect. But when you’re in charge and when you’re leading, ‘no’ won’t get the job done. We have to come up with solutions.”
Thompson attributed the House Republicans’ view to differences over the key items from their unsuccessful session agenda. Those questioning the GOP’s call for a new appeals court include the state Supreme Court, for instance, while counties remain jittery over lost revenue from a proposed repeal of non-real estate property taxes, Thompson said.
“Whatever we did, or whatever we do, we will be criticized because they, the Republicans, believe that they should be in charge and that they would do better and that they would do it all,” Thompson said. “You’re always going to hear those arguments at the end of each session.”
But Thompson repeatedly cited how most bills pass unanimously or nearly so in the House, with a majority of both parties supporting passage. That’s been true during a lot of the heavy lifting that’s occurred during Thompson’s seven years as speaker, he said. Among other big-ticket items, lawmakers provided clear rules for Marcellus shale natural gas producers, kept the jobless benefits fund solvent and debt-free, approved a plan that will gradually close a funding gap from promised retiree health benefits, and allowed teachers to rejoin the state’s traditional pension program. That latter measure aimed to rescue teachers facing inadequate 401K-style retirement accounts.
“It’s always easy to say, ‘You should have done this, you should have done that,’” Thompson said. “I’m looking at it from the fact that these were very difficult matters that were very important to West Virginia. We were able to address them.”
Thompson, 60, will join Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s Cabinet following the retirement of the department’s current secretary, Keith Gwinn. Facing health issues, Gwinn is expected to step down next month. Thompson said the circumstances prompted his decision, though he has more than a year left in his terms as speaker and as a legislator.
“This opportunity was something that I was really interested in and very passionate about, and this is when the opportunity came up for me. With Secretary Gwinn’s retirement, the opportunity is now,” Thompson said. “It can’t wait. I feel like I’m the best person for that job and so that’s why I wanted to take it while the opportunity was there.”
Thompson served in the Army and as a military police officer in the 1970s. He counts some two dozen bills during his tenure as speaker that aimed to benefit veterans. Those include a measure meant to ensure that all West Virginia colleges are veteran-friendly, while another expands tuition aid for those who served in the National Guard and reserves.