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Education, prisons, future fund all on WV Senate President Kessler’s radar

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CHARLESTON, WV -

Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, isn't expecting many surprises when the regular legislative session starts next week.

But he is looking forward with one proposal — far forward.

"I haven't given up on this idea of a future fund," Kessler said. "Here in Marshall County, property values have doubled in the last five years, and they're probably going to double again.

"It's the investment: A lot of farmlands that used to be nothing but farms, now they've got million-dollar wells on them."

Kessler said several companies have processing and fractionation plants throughout the Northern Panhandle region.

"You're seeing a significant increase in economic activity and the doubling of property values in this county alone," Kessler said. "I expect it to continue, and if that continues to occur across the rest of the state, we're going to have a real windfall in terms of additional tax dollars in this state."

Kessler would like to see a permanent endowment future fund so in many years when the natural gas is gone, the wealth and opportunity doesn't dry up as well.

"Not many others are talking about it, but if we were able to create the fund and start putting anything in it, it would send a powerful signal to Wall Street that West Virginia, during these tough economic times, is not only balancing its budget but saving for the future," he said.

Kessler said he wants to see "meaningful action" on the long-standing problem of prison overcrowding and substance abuse initiatives. He also said education will be one of the biggest issues for the session.

"The majority leader issued a statement last week following up on my prior comments that I'd like to do something on child poverty," Kessler said. "We look at all these problems like lack of education attainment, our prisons are busting at the seams, people are at high levels of drug addiction, we have unhealthy lifestyles, high diabetes rates, obesity — unfortunately, the common denominator for many of these negative problems that we have often start with childhood with poverty."

Kessler said taking a comprehensive view of all those problems, rather than an isolated view, would lead to better solutions.

As for some of the session roadblocks to come?

Kessler said dealing with substance abuse and prison overcrowding might become contentious, since state government has historically gone by the "lock them up and throw away the key," procedure, but Kessler said that's not always productive.

"Some might say we're being soft on crime, and that's not the case," he said. "We're being smart on crime, and trying to put people in jail that we're afraid of, not those people we get mad at."

Kessler said he didn't want to see the prison issues become a "political football," with pundits on either side claiming that politicians are soft on crime.

"It's a matter of limited resources," he said. "We need to lock up the guys who need locked up and find other, less expensive ways to get folks functional again."

Kessler said he's also seen plenty of push-back on education issues during his time in the Senate.

"One thing I've learned over the years is that everyone wants change, but no one wants change," he said. "At the end of the day, I hope we're sincere and genuine in changing things."

Kessler said more specifically, he expects to see discussion about more flexibility in teacher hiring and changing locality pay.

Kessler said he's looking forward to having new faces with new ideas in the Senate.

"I'm looking forward to having the eight new senators, and I'm interested in interacting with them," he said. "Any time you have new folks, you have new ideas and fresh ideas."

But, Kessler said he's not looking forward to delivering bad news, and he knows there are a lot of demands for pay raises this year.

"People don't mind being told ‘no,' but they hate being ignored or lied to," Kessler said. "We need to make it clear up front, because I don't think across the board raises are likely to occur this year."