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House, Senate Look Forward to Caucus Today

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With the 2013 session still more than two months away, members of the West Virginia Legislature already are preparing for the 60-day session.
Members of the Senate and House of Delegates will meet Sunday afternoon for a caucus that will decide the nominees for several positions, including Senate president, speaker of the House, clerks, sergeants-at-arms and doorkeepers.
The full chambers ultimately elect officers the first day of the legislative session – this time
on Feb. 13 – but that doesn't stop the rumor mill from churning.
Although House Speaker Rick Thompson has maintained his position since 2006, it was rumored recently that Delegate Doug Skaff, a conservative Democrat representing Kanawha County, would try his hand at House leadership. Other names, including that of House Finance Committee chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, have surfaced.
However, Thompson said those rumors are just that — rumors.
"My conversations with the members indicate they simply want to do the work that the people elected them to do as members of the House of Delegates," he said.
Meanwhile, across the rotunda in the Senate chambers, Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said he's confident he has enough support to earn a second term as president.
"Having been through two of these, one for acting president and last year for the president, that the word of my senators is usually something I can take to the bank," Kessler said.
Kessler assumed the position of acting Senate president after then-Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin became acting governor. That happened following Joe Manchin's election to the U.S. Senate. Kessler served as acting Senate president for about a year before the Senate caucus voted him in as Senate president once Tomblin was elected officially as governor.
In his short time as Senate president, Kessler said he has worked to make the Senate more open and transparent for both members and the public.
All members of the Senate and House of Delegates received iPads last year, which allowed information to be published quicker so the members knew each bit of information before voting. Now this year, the Senate Finance and Judiciary committee rooms have new, flat-screen TVs to make meetings more transparent to the public.
"I think you'll see we've placed in the major committee rooms flat screen TVs, both for the audience and the members, so when people are making presentations, those in the audience as well as the senators will see the same thing," Kessler said. "I think that helps transparency. It's even set up to do video conferencing."
Before the TVs were put in place, the Legislature would pay for the airfare and housing expenses for national experts who would travel to the state Capitol and make presentations before the committees. Now, thanks to the TVs, taxpayers can save money and the Legislature can still hear valuable information from those experts. Kessler said he thinks the TVs will pay for themselves within a couple of interim committee meeting cycles.
But iPads and flat-screen TVs aren't the only new things in the Senate.
Of 34 members, eight will be new.
Several current senators retired and did not run for re-election, leaving room for political newcomers as well as some transplants from the House of Delegates.
However, Kessler said he's confident the freshmen senators will quickly learn the procedures and rules of the State Senate.
"They're familiar with the legislative process and know how the committee process works," Kessler said. As a freshman senator in 1997, Kessler said he "couldn't find my way to the Senate chambers, my office or the bathroom."
"It's like riding a bike, though," Kessler said. "Once you do it a time or two the process isn't all that different."
Mitch Carmichael, who served in the House of Delegates representing Jackson County, was elected Nov. 6 to the state Senate. Carmichael, a Republican, said he is excited to see the House pick up 11 more Republicans, but he thinks he can better serve his constituents in the Senate. 
"The opportunity to move to the Senate is an incredible blessing," he said. "I'm thrilled to do it."
Carmichael said senators tend to have more influence on legislation, and, although he'll be one of very few Republicans in the 34-member body, he thinks members will work around disagreements.
"I'm sure we'll come to consensus that moves the state of West Virginia forward," Carmichael said. "To move from the House to the Senate is not a huge change. It's exactly the same job, just on a little bigger scale. This is the most excited I've been since I've been in the Legislature."
On the House side, Delegate John Ellem, R-Wood, said he's also excited for the upcoming session.
"We'll need a bigger room," he said with a laugh. His party picked up 11 House seats in the Nov. 6 election, meaning the Republicans hold more seats in the House of Delegates now than at any point in modern history. Despite all the new faces, Ellem said the party is confident in Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha.
"Everybody has a lot of confidence in our current minority leader, and there will be a lot of educating of new members," Ellem said. "We'll be working with a lot of the new members, explaining what goes on in the committees to get them up to speed as quickly as possible."
Because the Republicans now hold more seats, Ellem said he's looking forward to working with other members of his party to voice their concerns on policy issues.
Thompson said the caucus process is an important one. Choosing members to carry out the duties of the House of Delegates is one thing voters care about.
"Voters care about the people they have elected to office working very hard to represent them to the best of their abilities," Thompson said. "That's the one goal underlying everything that's done in the House of Delegates, including choosing officers and a Speaker to ensure proper management and order in our people's House."