In April 2015, OV Connect hosted a panel of local legislators to reflect on the recent session. Delegates Erikka Storch and Shawn Fluharty and Sen. Jeff Kessler attended this luncheon, but unfortunately the date did not work for Sen. Ryan Ferns (Republican, First District). As an OV Connect board member, I felt it was important to get a full set of perspectives on how things went in Charleston this last go-round, so I worked with Weelunk to arrange a way to share Mr. Ferns’ take on the session as well. The Weelunk guys were especially interested in this because readers have been able to hear Storch and Fluharty’s reflections through a recent article on the site, but we hadn’t yet heard from Senator Ferns.
Sarah: Share some of your reflections from the recent session. What stands out to you?
Ferns: When reflecting on the session, I typically start with Nov. 4 because in order to understand what a monumental undertaking this was, you need to know that not until Nov. 5 did we even know that we (state Republicans) were a majority — that next day Daniel Hall flipped. Now for 83 years, one party has had control of the legislature, both the House and the Senate, and there’s no blueprint for the changeover! It wasn’t like in other states where this may happen every few years, and people know what to do. No one who is living today was around last time when it changed. So we had from Nov. 5 until January to change over 134 offices and assign all new committee chairmen and vice chairmen in both the House and the Senate. And quite frankly, a lot of the staff, they were beholden to the Democratic party because these were the people they had worked for forever. They couldn’t stick around; you can’t ask someone to work for you if they don’t believe in what you’re doing, so there was a lot of hiring and firing of staff. The other thing was, we knew who we wanted to be our Senate president; he had led the charge, recruited candidates, etc., but officially he couldn’t be our president until the first day of session, and the Senate president chooses the committee chairmen, authorizes hiring and firing, etc., but he wasn’t our president, technically, yet. If we were actually going to have a chance at running the session, we needed the time to get set up. That changeover process really took at least a month and a half, so now you’re left with two weeks before people are even getting moved into their offices and meeting the staff and attorneys who are going to draft the bills and make up our session agenda.
Sarah: What do you consider a real accomplishment of this session?
Ferns: Even though we were delayed in starting, we were not going to sit back and blame the fact that we were short on time to run the agenda we’ve wanted all these years; we’re going to go after it regardless. And we did, and we passed 13 of our top 15 bills. [Some staff who remained] said at the start of the session that if we passed half, it would be a huge accomplishment. So we surprised everybody. Even some Democrats who had been around for a long time said that was the most seamless transition they could have imagined. I mean, they didn’t say that to the press very often, but they said it to me personally. I’m going to speak mostly about the Senate, but our objective was not to get bogged down in what we considered smaller items, things that have little impact that can be really controversial. Our goal was to turn the state around in a way that would keep younger people here. There’s no secret that the thing that leads young people to leave is the lack of job opportunities. Some people believe that government is responsible for those jobs. The other school of thought — and my opinion — is that we create an atmosphere within our state, where the conditions are attractive to private investors who in my opinion are the real job creators. In the Governor’s State of the State address, he said that he took offense that West Virginia had been called a “legislative hell hole” year after year. There is a national organization that looks at every state in the country, and we had been at the top of the “judicial hell hole “ list for more than a decade. So our top 15 bills were involved with trying to change that. Because all businesses have liability and risk. One of the things that keeps business owners up at night is the threat of a lawsuit – a potential financial blow to an business. And you can lose it all over one issue; that’s the kind of stuff you lose sleep over. On the tort reform front, we accomplished more than what anyone ever thought possible. By the end of the session, the Institute for Legal Reform said that we are the “legal reform capital of the nation.”
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Sarah: Specifically, which bills passed that you are most proud of?
Ryan: Two bills in particular: one is Senate Bill 13, which was Reinstating open and obvious doctrine for premises liability. What that says is that if there is a risk on a property, which is considered open and obvious to any passer-by, that anyone walking by can see, the property owner shouldn’t be considered liable for something someone could commonly avoid, by using common sense. If you see an obvious danger, you should not approach that danger. I want to give you another one along those same lines: Senate Bill 3, Relating to real property possessor’s liability for trespasser harm. We have a lot of rural areas in the state — people who own large amounts of land — and prior to the session if a trespasser who went onto someone’s private property and was injured as a result of trespassing, they could still sue that private property owner. So say a hunter was trespassing on someone’s land where there were no trespassing signs posted; if the hunter climbed a tree and fell, he could sue the land-owner. If you look at other states, these laws put us way out of line with the rest of the country. When prospective investors and business owners look at the state, they learn that in x,y,z issues we are way out of line with the rest of the country. We brought these laws back to the middle, and, in fact, every one of these tort reform laws that we passed had bipartisan support – not 100 percent, but 6, 7, 8 Democrats voted with us on them. Another thing that stood out about the session was that a lot of people expected us to really just ram bills down the line with no compromise because we had the votes to do that. But that’s not good policy. It’s healthy for government to have a true two party system. If you have opposing views, you raise questions that maybe I wouldn’t have thought of before. And if this side agrees that the other side made some good points, then the vote changes, and that’s what results in good policy.
Sarah: What would you all in the Senate have liked to have accomplished, but didn’t?
Ryan: One of the things that I knew we weren’t going to tackle this session, but I felt was important, was tax reform. Fortunately we’re doing that right now outside the regular session. Since the session ended last month, the President of the Senate and Speaker appointed a 14-person select committee on tax reform, which I am lucky enough to be appointed to. This is another thing that I think will make a huge impact on our state. If you weren’t spending hours and hours on it like we are, it would be very different to understand. Our tax code was set up in the 1920s, based on the economy of the 1920s. At that time we were heavily focused in manufacturing, agriculture, and, of course, extraction which we still have a lot of. We have almost no manufacturing anymore, little to no agriculture, and some extraction, some of it declining with coal, some new with gas. At that time, those industries were so productive and profitable that they could afford to bear the brunt of the tax responsibility. A tax code, if done correctly, is supposed to represent consumption of government services: The code should say, “You want these services like roads, a legal system, schools – those things cost money, and everyone needs to chip in and pay for it.’ A manufacturing company may consume more of these services, so it was justified for them to pay for them. The problem is our economy has shifted out to other industries, and all of our tax burden is still focused in these areas, so now we’ve had a dramatic decline in our ability to generate revenue because we sort of had all of our eggs in one basket. So the idea is instead of having a couple of industries really high and the other ones low, we lower the overall rate and spread it out across the board. Some will come up a little bit, some will come down a little bit. It’s sustainable; it doesn’t matter if economies change because we’ve got it across the board, nice and even. Right now, every time we see a decline in one industry, we try to plug the hole with something else – a constant patchwork. It really doesn’t work well for anybody. The goal is to make it simple, inclusive and fair across the board. We have had two past governors who have tried to do this and did a lot of the research and leg work but never got it to the finish line. We have all of that information. Those folks who worked on that are still around, and a lot of the work that they did is still relevant. We’ve asked the governor once we complete our work to call a special session. When will that be? As long as it takes us, and as soon as possible.