Thompson, Kessler re-elected as Legislature leaders
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Legislators re-elected state Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, and House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, as the 81th Legislature convened briefly on Wednesday.
In his acceptance speech, Thompson reached out to House Republicans, who now constitute a sizable minority of 46 of the 100 House members.
"This isn't Washington, thank goodness. We know West Virginians don't want gridlock. They want progress," Thompson said, after being elected to his fourth two-year term as speaker.
"Voting no at every turn -- or pushing off earnest attempts at real solutions until we reach the edge of a "cliff" in order to avoid difficult votes -- will not work," he told House members.
Thompson called on delegates to put principal above partisanship, ethics above opportunism, and the people's interests above special interests.
Quoting John F. Kennedy, Thompson said, "Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate."
Earlier Wednesday, House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, pledged to Thompson the "continued friendship" of House Republicans.
"As friends, we don't always agree on everything, and I'm sure that will continue," Armstead said. "We will work always with a goal of making West Virginia a better place."
Both Thompson and Kessler told members to expect a challenging 2013 regular session, with state budget cuts, an aggressive education reform package, and issues regarding health care accessibility and affordability on the agenda.
"I am confident we will not only face these challenges, we will find solutions that will change our state positively," said Kessler, elected to his first full two-year term as Senate president.
Afterward, Thompson confirmed that his speech was a call for bipartisan cooperation, but stressed that virtually all key measures passed by the Legislature in recent years have had strong support from Democrats and Republicans alike.
"They were not done with the Ds versus the Rs," Thompson said. "What I want to do is have votes out here that are 90-some to three or four. I want consensus."
In his speech, Thompson told delegates, "The education system in West Virginia is on the brink of an overhaul." Afterward, he said he will await specifics on education audit reforms in the governor's legislative agenda.
"It's the governor's audit, and I want to wait and see what the governor proposes," Thompson added, "I think we all want to take bold steps to make the West Virginia education system the best it can be."
Keeping with tradition, House members nominated Thompson and Armstead for speaker, with Thompson elected on a 54-46 vote almost entirely party lines. Following House tradition, Thompson voted for Armstead and vice versa.
Likewise, the Senate elected Kessler on a 25-9 vote over Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam.
The noon session lasted just over two hours, with the Legislature adjourning until the start of the 60-day regular session, beginning Feb. 13.
The House and Senate also elected clerks, head doorkeepers and sergeant-at-arms for each house Wednesday.
In the Senate, longtime Sen. Joe Minard, D-Harrison, was elected clerk, succeeding retiring Senate clerk Darrell Holmes.
That means Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin will have to appoint a third member to the Senate. He's already appointed Robert "Rocky" Fitzsimmons to replace Orphy Klempa, who was elected to the Ohio County Commission.
Tomblin will also have to name replacements for Minard and Sen. Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, who was elected state agriculture commissioner.
Reach Phil Kabler at email@example.com or 304-348-1220.