West Virginia legislative session ends with bill successes, failures
CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Senate and House of Delegates wrapped up its 2019 legislative session Saturday night with more than 260 bills having passed both bodies.
More than 14 percent of the 1,823 bills introduced in the Senate and the House have passed since lawmakers gaveled in Jan. 9.
Education was a major focus of this year’s session, with several bills making it over the finish line. Senate Bill 1 creates a last-dollar-in community and technical college program to give high school students and adult learners access to certificates and two-year degrees for high-need jobs.
The bill was a major priority for Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson. A related bill, House Bill 2004, would provide high school students and their parents with information on career and technical programs and two-year programs that lead to high-paying jobs.
“One of the biggest successes over the last several years has been Senate Bill 1,” Carmichael said. “It removed the financial impediment for people in West Virginia to gain additional education through community and technical college or certifications. This is the most substantive economic reform package and education initiative that’s been passed in the legislature in years.”
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, agreed that the passage of SB 1 would help put more people to work.
“That’s a big deal,” Hanshaw said. “We were committed to that. We all want to make sure we were providing as much workforce training as we can.”
He also was proud of the passage of SB 152, which would expunge the criminal records for certain offenders and give them a second chance to live and work.
“We know that so many West Virginians are unable to get back on the employment rolls because of indiscretions early in their life,” Hanshaw said. “We’re happy that has happened.”
The education bill that did not make the grade was Senate Bill 451, the education omnibus bill. It included a 5 percent pay raise for teachers and school services personnel as promised by Gov. Jim Justice and Senate leaders. It also included a number of school funding improvements, teacher hiring incentives for high-need subjects, tax credits for teachers and staff, and end-of-year bonuses for not missing work.
However, provisions creating a public charter school program and education savings accounts created pushback from the House and a two-day teacher’s strike at the end of February. SB 451 died after the House voted to postpone action on the bill indefinitely.
The House passed over a stand-alone 5 percent pay raise for teachers and school service personnel to the Senate, which has never been taken up. That caused the governor to call a special session that started immediately after the end of Saturday night’s regular session. Lawmakers plan to adjourn and return later in the spring to consider the pay raise and possibly other education reform legislation.
Even with the loss of the massive education reform package that first originated in the Senate at the end of January, Carmichael was happy that the attempt helped spur further conversations on education reform. He’s hopeful the spring special session for education can help move some of the Senate’s reform ideas forward.
“The debate has been engaged,” Carmichael said. “We have set money aside in this budget to provide for substantive education reform. We’ll be able to convene and fully embrace and examine and explore the vital changes and components that are necessary to make West Virginia the best environment to educate our children.”
Hanshaw also looks forward to continuing the conversation on education reform after lawmakers return home and meet with teachers, parents, students, and community members.
“I’m happy that debate is continuing on now,” Hanshaw said. “People were and are motivated to look at how we improve public education in this state. We’re going to continue that. Members of the House are going to be taking that conversation out to various communities all over the state.”
Another legislative priority this session was expansion of high-speed broadband internet in rural parts of the state. Senate Bill 3 combines portions of House Bill 2005, the Broadband Expansion Act of 2019, which passed the House early in the session. Hanshaw, an outspoken advocate for broadband expansion, was happy to see the House’s provisions make it in the Senate bill.
“I don’t care what the vehicle is, I care that we get the policy through,” Hanshaw said. “That broadband bill is important. We know that’s a small business bill.”
SB 3 would tax communications tower construction at salvage value for expansion of wireless and broadband internet, require electric companies to study the use of their power poles for broadband expansion, and give internet companies the ability to use state rights of way for expanding next-generation broadband and wireless internet technologies.
A number of tax cuts were passed by the Legislature. House Bill 2001, the first bill introduced at the beginning of the session, spreads out a Social Security income tax exemption over the next three fiscal years. By fiscal year 2022, the remaining 22 percent of Social Security beneficiaries would be exempt from having their income taxed, saving senior taxpayers $50 million.
However, an effort to pass a resolution that would have paved the way for elimination of the business and inventory tax never made it out of committee. Hanshaw was disappointed, but not deterred.
“We would have liked to see some movement on the equipment and inventory tax reduction,” Hanshaw said. “We’ll still be committed to that in future legislatures. This just wasn’t the year for it. That doesn’t mean it won’t be the year for it in future sessions.”
Severance taxes also saw cuts. HB 3142 reduces tax rate for steam coal severance from 5 percent to 3 percent by fiscal year 2022, reducing tax revenues by $60 million at the end of the three years. Severance taxes were eliminated for low-producing oil and natural gas wells, with those funds now going towards plugging abandoned oil and natural gas wells. The severance tax for sandstone and limestone was also eliminated.
Efforts to reform the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals also never made it. A resolution clarifying that the Legislature has exclusive authority over impeachment passed the Senate, but never received the two-thirds needed to pass the House. The House also didn’t take up SB 266, creating an intermediate appeals court, which both the governor and the Senate supported.
Other bills that passed included legislation to make Home Rule a permanent program, a bill that will allow credit unions and other financial institutions to manage fees generated from the state’s medical cannabis law, legislation to allow online gaming, and several reforms to the state’s liquor and beer laws to allow Sunday sales and remove limits on beer growler sales.
Justice had signed 40 bills into law as of Saturday.