CHARLESTON – The 2014 regular legislative session began amidst surprising and unprecedented circumstances caused by the water crisis, and ended not only with comprehensive legislation to better protect the state’s water supply, but also included many fiscally responsible economic development, education and public safety initiatives.
“Going into my first session as Speaker, I certainly didn’t envision having to deal with a State of Emergency that redirected much of our focus. But I’m pleased to report it did not prevent us from accomplishing a great deal in a short time,” House Speaker Tim Miley said. “In the end, the experience only confirmed my faith in the sincerity and work ethic of the members of the House of Delegates.”
House Majority Leader Harry Keith White agreed.
“We’ve dealt with everything from the water situation to snow and ice, but we never stopped working on the issues that are important to the House leadership,” the Majority Leader said. “We passed legislation to help small businesses and encourage economic development; support and protect West Virginia workers; strengthen our educational system; and improve public safety.”
On the final night of session, the House passed unanimously Senate Bill 373, the water protection legislation.
“While this bill is a direct response to the causes of water crisis here in Kanawha County and the regulation of above-ground storage tanks, just as importantly it puts in place source water protection plans and monitoring for the entire state,” House Judiciary Chairman Tim Manchin, D-Marion, said.
The state Department of Environmental Protection is directed to develop regulations for the tanks. The Bureau for Public Health is to study the long-term health effects of exposure to the current spill.
“This legislation is critically important not only to the people of my district who were so deeply affected by the spill, but also to the well being and safety of all West Virginians,” Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, said. “This legislation is the beginning of an extensive process to enact better protections and produce answers.”
In approving by a 91-5 vote SB 461 to create a Future Fund that saves severance tax revenue from extraction industries for generations to come, the House of Delegates also took steps to make maintaining a balanced state budget with a healthy Rainy Day Fund first priority.
“We believe we have improved this legislation,” House Finance Chairman Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, said. “We want to set certain standards to make sure that each annual budget is stable, then once those standards are met, maximize the long-term savings from the expected increase in severance tax.”
The House amended SB 461 to add those standards.
“As we are preparing the upcoming budget, we are forced to consider dipping into the state Rainy Day Fund, a move we do not take lightly,” House Finance Vice Chairman Doug Reynolds, D-Cabell, said. “Our members simply want to make sure that before money is set aside in a new savings account, the Rainy Day Fund remains at 13 percent of the budget and the budget is solid enough so that mid-year cuts or transfers from the Rainy Day Fund are not needed.
“That way, the state’s bond rating is protected.”
As adopted by the Senate, the legislation would have required that once the annual oil &gas severance tax revenue reaches $175 million, 25 percent of the amount above that level go into the Future Fund. That transfer would take place before the Rainy Day Fund level is calculated.
The House approach requires that first, the Rainy Day Fund be fully funded; second, no Rainy Day Funds are used to balance the budget; and third, no mid-year budget reductions or hiring freezes will be needed. Once those terms are met, 3 percent of revenue from the severance taxes on coal, sandstone limestone, and oil & natural gas is set aside in the Future Fund.
House Finance Committee member Richard Iaquinta was among the legislators who traveled to North Dakota last year to learn about the success of that state’s future fund.
“I strongly believe that creating a West Virginia Future Fund is good public policy,” Iaquinta said. “This bill puts in place safeguards to ensure fiscal responsibility.”
House Bill 4283 will raise the minimum wage by 75 cents in 2015 to $8.00 an hour, and another 75 cents in 2016.
“This will impact over 100,000 working West Virginians who haven’t had a pay raise in quite a long time,” House Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion, said. “The minimum wage used to apply to those just entering the work force. Now it’s for people trying to support their families.” HB 4175 allows the governor to provide immediate emergency financial assistance – such as a grant or a no-interest loan – to small businesses located in the areas under a State of Emergency.
“During the first week of the water crisis, I heard from many local business owners who were taking a big financial hit,” said Delegate Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, Chairman of House Small Business, Entrepreneurship & Economic Development Committee. “This bill allows the state to offer immediate financial help to small businesses, so owners can take care of looming expenses despite being forced to close for a period of time.”
Another bill endorsed by the House Small Business Committee, HB4343 permits the creation of West Virginia “launchpads” for economic development, which are to be special districts that provide tax benefits and abatements to certain “new economy” businesses operating within the boundaries of a launchpad district.
Counties and municipalities may apply to the Department of Commerce to have an area, up to 2,500 acres in size, designated by the Governor as a West Virginia launchpad for economic development. Up to 10 launchpads are permitted to be created statewide.
“Moving forward, it is imperative that West Virginia diversify its economy,” noted House Government Organization Chairman Jim Morgan, D-Cabell, who also serves on the Small Business Committee. “This pilot project will provide some much-needed incentives.”
HB4619, which authorizes innovation school districts, was approved during the final hours of session. With an eye toward small businesses and entrepreneurship, the House Education Committee included in the legislation the stipulation that when the state Board of Education is considering innovation zone applications, priority be given to applications that include entrepreneurship education programs.
“This legislation is about school systems experimenting with new teaching techniques and different ways of approaching subject matter,” House Education Vice Chairman David Perry, D-Fayette, said. “It is only natural that school districts seeking to innovate and be creative should incorporate entrepreneurship into their plans.”
As part of the Governor’s legislative package, SB 391 increases salaries for professional educators and school personnel. As amended, the bill provides a $1,000 across-the-board raise for professional educators and a 2 percent raise plus an increase in the equity supplement of $12 per month for school service personnel.
“We are pleased to be able to provide well-deserved, but fiscally reasonable raises that will not overburden the tight state budget,” said Delegate David Pethtel, D-Wetzel, a recently retired teacher of 40 years.
Delegate Jason Barrett, D-Berkeley, is pleased legislation he sponsored addressing dyslexia as a specific learning disability within West Virginia Schools passed.
“House Bill 4608 actually defines ‘dyslexia’ and ‘dyscalculia’ in code for our public schools,” Barrett said. “That will allow students with dyslexia or dyscalculia to be recognized as students with a specific learning disability to help ensure they are provided with a curriculum that meets their needs.”
In an effort to help offset skyrocking flood insurance rates caused by 2012 federal legislation, SB 621 authorize insurers to offer flood insurance. Congress’ Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 is intended to bolster the National Flood Insurance Program, which is deeply in debt following disasters such as Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina. “Unfortunately, inland properties, including many in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle, are experiencing drastically higher flood insurance rates,” noted House Speaker Pro Tem Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock.
Swartzmiller also sponsored HCR 42, which urges Congress to revisit and revise the Act.
“Homeowners and business-owners who are not facing a significant flood risk are being forced to pay for the loss of beach-front dwellings vulnerable to tropical storms and hurricanes,” he said. “That simply isn’t fair.”
Delegate Linda Phillips said she is proud that two bills adopted were produced through the work of the Select Committee on Crimes Against Children, which she chairs.
“The women of the House of Delegates from both parties met many times during the monthly legislative interim process and zeroed in on some specific aspects of criminal laws related to child protection that could be improved,” Phillips, D-Wyoming, said.
HB 4005 creates a new felony offense for a parent, guardian or custodian to grossly abuse or neglect a child which creates a substantial risk of bodily injury. The bill also creates a new misdemeanor offense for child abuse and neglect by a parent, guardian or custodian which creates a substantial threat of bodily injury and provide penalties. HB 4006 adds enhanced penalties for offenses of child pornography with aggravating circumstances. Knowingly sending, causing to be sent, distributing, exhibiting, displaying, transporting, possessing or accessing with intent to view any file containing more than 500 images of a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct is a felony punishable by a sentence of 18 months to 5 years and a fine of up to $10,000.
“I look forward to continuing the work of this bipartisan committee this year on initiatives to protect children,” Phillips said.
To view legislation, go to Bill Status.