CHARLESTON (AP) - West Virginia legislators began a legislative session Wednesday that's expected to be dominated by proposals to improve the state's schools and ease its overcrowded prison system.
The 60-day session began just after noon and quickly adjourned to prepare for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's State of the State address in the evening.
Tomblin called for legislation to address the state's public schools, which are highly funded by national standards but also underperforming. West Virginia ranks eighth nationally in education spending relative to income, but students rank well below average on national standardized testing.
A recent audit of the education system concluded that the state's schools are burdened with a rigid central bureaucracy and inflexible rules. Among the potential changes being discussed is reorganizing the Department of Education to eliminate redundancies and giving local communities more control over how best to structure the school schedule. State law mandates a minimum of 180 days of instructional time, although the education audit found that last year students averaged only 170 days of instructional time.
Jim Phares, the new state superintendent of schools, told a group of lawmakers on Tuesday he was working on easing burdensome regulations.
"We are committed to removing layers of bureaucracy and barriers to enable local initiative," Phares said.
Other bills are expected based on a recent report that recommended releasing some state prisoners six months early into supervised programs. It also recommended spending $3 million on new substance abuse programs. It's estimated that the crimes of 80 percent of state inmates are somehow drug-related.
The state's prison commissioner has said overcrowding is at "crisis level." Every one of the state's 5,400 prison beds is filled, and an overflow of about 1,700 state prisoners are being housed in regional jails that are meant for convicts with shorter sentences on less serious crimes.
Making the changes recommended in the report would save the state $116 million over five years, according to budget estimates.
House Minority Leader Tim Armstead has said that he agrees prisoners need more supervised release, but sentences should not be cut short. Armstead said last week that he would not support making all the changes recommended by the report.
Tomblin can expect to face reinvigorated Republican opposition in the House of Delegates. Republicans gained 11 seats in November's elections and are now just five votes short of a majority. Just five years ago, only 28 of the 100 delegates were Republicans.
While the first day of the legislature is largely ceremonial - both the House and the Senate adjourned after less than 30 minutes - there was one substantive piece of business: The Senate created a special committee to study ways to address childhood poverty. One in four West Virginia children lives in poverty, according to census data.
The committee is the brainchild of Senate President Jeff Kessler, who will appoint its members. The committee, which will meet year-round and not just during the legislative session, likely will be chaired by Senate Majority Leader John Unger. In introducing the committee on the Senate floor, Unger told a story of visiting his wife's third-grade classroom in Berkeley County and finding a majority of the students who would have liked an extra lunch so that the rest of their family could have more to eat at night.
"Here is the wealthiest country in the world, and this is happening," Unger said.