With just seven days left in the2019 Legislative Session, lawmakers will be working frenetically to adopt a balanced state budget that can pass both houses and be sustained by Governor Justice’s signature. On Saturday, the House passed its $4.66 spending plan that included a 5% pay raise for teachers, school service personnel and other state employees. The Senate’s $4.659 budget plan, however, does not contain the 5% pay raise that had been promised earlier by the Governor and Senate leadership.
The Senate is still stinging after the House rejected all of its controversial education reform plans. Those reforms (charter schools, work stoppage penalties, education savings accounts and non- severability clause) were stripped from the Senate bill after teachers staged a two day walk out and threatened to call another prolonged strike similar to 2018. Senate leadership has indicated that they are committed to including a clean pay increase into their 2019-20 spending plan.
The final budget will ultimately be decided by a budget conference committee, usually five representatives from both the House and Senate whose responsibility is to find compromise on their respective differences and submit that document to the full legislature for approval. That conference committee is expected to begin its deliberations by midweek.
Besides the contentious budget work, there are other important issues that lawmakers will be addressing this week. One divisive issue has been the bill advocated by Ohio County legislators that would allow a satellite casino to be built in the same county as a licensed racinos. This allownce is necessitated by the expected five year long Interstate #70/Wheeling highway bridge and decking project as outlined in the Roads To Prosperity bond issue. The Wheeling Island Casino, fearing significant revenue loss caused by the highway disruption, wanted to build a free standing facility at the Highlands to compensate for the loss of revenues. Unfortunately, that effort failed in Senate Finance by a 7-8 vote. Proponents are looking at other possible bills that might be germane enough to warrant another amendment attempt.
Lawmakers are also expected to deal with the issue of municipal home rule. The original home rule legislation had a five year sunset provision. Cities have introduced legislation (SB 4) that would broaden homerule designation and make it a permanent status. The House is expected to consider the bill before the session concludes. It is important to OVCEC members that the House does not try to prevent the cities ability to make contract and project RFP decisions based on their specific needs and expectations. The Senate version excludes that clutter.
In other policy issues, the legislature cant seem to muster the appropriate support for lowering or eliminating the property tax on business inventory and machinery. The loss of revenues to school boards and counties is just too much drag on the long debated policy change. It also appears that the three year effort to create an intermediate court of appeals is close to dying once again. On a positive note, the Legislature is expected to approve a bill that would establish the legal framework for cannabis related banking services. Presently, national and certain state chartered banks are prohibited from accepting deposits generated from the sale of medical cannabis sales. This bill would allow certain credit unions and other financial service designations made by State Treasurer to earn a legal status and shield from prosecution.
The coal industry is poised to receive a steam coal severance tax reduction. Industry lobbyists have long advocated for a lower severance rate as a means for staying competitive with other states who possess cheaper coal and lower transportation costs. It looks like lawmakers will likely approve a 1% reduction (5% grass receipts tax will goe to 4%) for the next fiscal year with the possibility of another 1% reduction in 2021 should revenues remain robust. The full Senate vote is the last hurdle.
Here is a list of other bills of interest to OVCEC members:
SB 1, the bill which would guarantee tuition for any technical school coats not covered by grants and scholarships, has passed the Senate and has passed out of House Education Committee. It will be voted on by the full House on Wednesday.
HB 2203 - create a new Contractors Licensing Board and removes it from Division of Labor oversight. Sits in House Judiciary where it has languished with little support. Dead for another year.
SB 258 - establishes a common law “veil piercing” protection act that eliminates claims used to impose personal liability on corporate executives. Passed the Senate and sits in House Judiciary where it will likely die from lack of majority committee support.
HB 2646 - would establish a safe harbor for employers to correct underpayments or nonpayments of wages and benefits if certain conditions are met. Died in House Judiciary.
HB 2365 - clarifies the definition of an employee for purposes of unemployment and workers compensation to conform with federal IRS riles. Passed the House and has been referred to Senate Judiciary awaiting placement on agenda.
SB 266 - creates an Intermediate Court Of Appeals and WV Appellate Review Organization Act. It has passed the Senate and has been sent to House Judiciary Committee. It is highly unlikely that it will pass out of Judiciary.
In other political news, WV received another round of unwanted national news coverage this week when House democratic lawmakers strongly objected to an offensive poster on display at the capitol during the “republican party day” at the capitol. One republican activist juxtaposed a picture of the hijacked airline crashing into the Twin Towers with a picture of democratic Muslim Congresswoman from Minnesota. Lawmakers engaged in a heated exchange with the republican activist who stated that “all Muslims are terrorists” while some allegedly heard the woman say that “Muslims were murderers”. It was an embarrassing display caused by a complete lack of civility, grace and common courtesy. Speaker Henshaw admonished House members and staff for their lack of restraint and decorum. Political leaders from all persuasions took to the airwaves and bully pulpits to remind West Virginians that we are better than this and these displays of intolerance have no place in our public spaces. (