Legislative column: Things are moving fast in the Legislature

We are quickly approaching the halfway point of the 2014 Regular Session. The Senate has passed significant legislation to the House of Delegates for consideration; however, there is still much work to be done to improve the State of West Virginia. Additionally, I have personally introduced legislation which I believe will have a positive impact on the people and economy of the Northern Panhandle.

Last week I co-sponsored Senate Concurrent Resolution 16 which urges Congress to revise the Biggert-Watters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 – which has caused great increases in flood insurance premiums for many West Virginia residents and businesses. As a result of Biggert-Watters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began the process of updating Floodplain maps. In many instances these revised and expanded floodplain maps have incorrectly included many residents and businesses that had historically been located outside of recognized floodplains. Although floodplain maps can be appealed, a large cost is unfairly placed on West Virginia cities and property owners to complete the appeal process.

Further, under the new Biggert-Watters federal legislation, inland areas and coastal regions are insured together; however, traditionally flood insurance rates have been regionally based, where similar risk factors and like properties are insured. There is a distinct difference between inland flooding in West Virginia, which often results in permanent residences being cleaned and rehabbed, and coastal flooding, which primarily affects vacation homes that are completely lost. As a result, West Virginia property owners of low-risk primary residences have been forced to subsidize flood insurance for vacation homes that are intentionally built in high-risk coastal areas.

Additionally, as a result of these increased flood insurance premiums many West Virginians have become unable to sell their homes. Federally insured lending institutions are mandated to require home purchasers/borrowers to carry flood insurance. Upon learning of the exorbitant cost of flood insurance, many home buyers are unwilling or unable to complete the home purchase, leaving the home owners with no place to turn.

The Biggert-Watters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 has resulted in an unfair burden and hardship on West Virginia residents and businesses and must be corrected.

Last week I introduced Senate Bill 439, which will increase the acreage included in the tax increment financing (TIF) zone in Ohio County known as “The Highlands”. The 200-acre expansion will make it possible for the Ohio County Development Authority to finance and construct a new interstate interchange. The tremendous growth and success of “The Highlands” has necessitated this second interchange.

The Ohio County Development Authority has already spent $2.5 million on the proposed interchange for design plans, permits, and approvals. The TIF expansion would provide the financing for the interchange so that the construction phase could commence. The second interchange would increase overall safety in the area and provide further opportunities for commercial expansion. The bill has been double referenced to the Senate Government Organization and Finance Committees.

The Senate has also passed Senate Bill 373, a water protection bill, which I described in greater detail in my previous column. The bill requires the owners of tanks, which contain liquids other than water, to register the tanks and their contents with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP). The tanks are subject to annual inspection and must meet certain safety standards set by the WVDEP. This bill is an important first step towards protecting our water resources and ensuring that our drinking water is safe from disasters like the Elk River Chemical spill which recently occurred in Charleston.

Finally, I was proud to be a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 209 which passed the Senate this week. The bill will allow students with special needs to participate in graduation ceremonies and will require the provision of special need services to accomplish that goal. All students should have the opportunity to be recognized for their accomplishments alongside their peers.

I encourage all of my constituents to contact me with any questions or concerns. Please send letters to Senator Rocky Fitzsimmons, State Capitol, Building 1, Room 204-W, Charleston, WV 25305 or 1609 Warwood Ave., Wheeling WV, 26003. You can also call me at (304) 357-7918 (Charleston) or (304) 277-1700 (Wheeling) or e-mail me at rocky@fitzsimmonsfirm.com.

(Fitzsimmons, a Democrat from Wheeling, represents the 1st Senatorial District in the West Virginia Legislature)