2019 West Virginia legislative
session came to a temporary end on Saturday, March 9 after passing a $4.6 billion dollar spending plan for FY 2019-20. Unfortunately, Lawmakers could not come to an agreement on teacher pay and educational reform efforts. The House of Delegates agreed to a 5% pay increase for state teachers and school service personnel untethered to other issues while their Senate colleagues held firm to their beliefs that any teacher pay increase should be tied to various education reforms, including the creation of charter schools and education savings accounts. Both of which drew the opposition and contempt of the teacher lobby.
The inability to reach a compromise on these important education matters compelled Governor Justice to call an education related special session that technically began on Sunday, March 10 immediately after the regular session ended. This special session call is different from past special sessions because legislative deliberation didn't officially begin on March 10. The Governor, along with the counsel of legislative leaders, decided to recess and send lawmakers home for an extended period of time in order to hear from teachers, school boards and other educational professionals on the issues left on the legislative table. This “cooling off”period will, hopefully, lead to some consensus on pay and reforms that can be approved by the full legislature and be signed by the Governor. These educational listening sessions are now scheduled to be held around the state. Most statehouse politicos predict that lawmakers will return to complete its special session work in early June. It is important to note that state budget does have the necessary revenues to plug in a teacher raise that is expected to cost between $40 - $50 million.
While the temporary failure to reach consensus on education issues drove media attention, lawmakers were busy with other legislation and policy matters during the last few hectic weeks leading to regular session adjournment.
These bills included:
- which provides state “last dollar in “ grants for community and technical college education.
HB 2004 -
which creates new coordination between secondary school curriculum and community workforce and training programs that are tailored to local needs.
- the Municipal Home Rule legislation that awards permanent home rule status to existing home rule cities and creates the criteria for new applicants. This bill passed in clean fashion without the burden of “right to work” requirements or efforts to restrict municipalities from pursuing fair RFP proposals.
- establishes the WV Small Wireless Facilities Deployment Act which will bring small cell and 5 G development to cities and counties in the state.
- relating to a prime contractor’s responsibilities for wages and benefits.
- reduces the severance tax on low volume wells and directs that money to a special abandoned and orphan gas and oil well plugging program.
- sets up a mechanism for legal state banking services for the sale of medical marijauna.
- lowers the severance tax on thermal (steam) coal from 5% of gross sales to 3% over the next three reporting years.
As in most years, what didn't pass is just as important as approved legislation. Here is a short list of bills that failed to generate enough support to pass through the Legislature:
- would have put the elimination of the business and inventory tax to a statewide referendum. As much as business interests hate this punitive tax, the revenue loss to county, cities and, especially, school boards is too great to reconcile.
- this year’s tort reform effort. The legislation would have prohibited “veil piercing” claims to be applied on personal liability claims.
- the bill that would have created a Court of Appeals and WV Appellate Review Organization Act. The Court’s projected cost and the drop in filed appeals at the Supreme Court level continues to plague its chances.
- would have allowed concealed carry gun rights to licensed owners on state higher education facilities and campuses.
- created new criteria that would have reduced or eliminated any need for regulating and licensing of any profession or occupation.
- creating a new WV Contractor Licensing Board and moving said Board out from under the authority of the Division of Labor.
- would have allowed for the creation of one satellite gaming facility
In a county which hosts an existing licensed racino operator. This bill was introduced to help the City of Wheeling and Wheeling Downs Racino weather the expected loss of traffic and revenue when construction begins on the Interstate #70 bridge and deck replacement project.
In other political news, Kanawha County Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey finally ruled that the state’s 2017
right-to-work legislation was unconstitutional.
Bailey claimed that the legislation was a violation of the state’s takings clause whereby one group receives economic benefits derived from the dues and self assessment of others. The Judge’s ruling should be quickly appealed to the Supreme Court where there is an expectation that the new Court makeup will lead to overturning Bailey’s decision, remove any stay and validate the right-to-work legislation.
In a surprise move one day after the WV Legislature ended its regular session,
Governor Justice fired Secretary of Transportation, Tom Smith
. Smith was pushed out after a long list of vocal legislators and angry motorists raised public, and sometimes angry, concern over the state of secondary roads in WV. Secretary Smith, a former executive with the FHWA, was brought into the Justice administration and was tasked with crafting and selling the much heralded Roads to Prosperity bond referendum that passed with overwhelming approval.
The Governor, feeling political pressure to find more money for a deteriorating road system, has called for using some of the bond money to repair and repave secondary roads. It is widely reported that Smith was opposed to using bond money for county maintenance needs. This rift, coupled with an angry public, poor county maintenance programs, a horrendous winter season that caused hundreds of slips and slides were all too much of a burden on Smith’s tenure.
While Justice considers a number of candidates for his next Transportation Secretary, he recently named a personal friend and former company accountant, Byrd White, to head the states highways department on an interim basis. White had been working as a consultant to the Tax and Revenue Department and tasked with coordinating the recovery of back taxes from out of state contractors.
Pat McCune: OVCEC Political Consultant