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House, Senate wrap up the 2021 legislative session

Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay. (Photos Courtesy/WV Legislative Photography)

CHARLESTON – The West Virginia Legislature completed work on the 2021 legislative session Saturday night, gaveling out at midnight after 60 days operating under the cloud of COVID-19.

Lawmakers gaveled in at 11 a.m. Saturday morning, working to complete remaining legislation and the budget before the stroke of midnight.

The House and the Senate came to an agreement on a compromise on House Bill 2022, the budget for fiscal year 2022 starting July 1, with the House amending the bill Friday and the Senate agreeing to the amendment Saturday.

The general revenue budget largely returned most of the cuts made to the budget by the Senate Wednesday made in anticipation of the passage of House Bill 3300, the personal income tax phase-out plan developed by the Gov. Jim Justice and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam. The House rejected HB 3300 Friday in an unanimous vote of all 100 delegates after Justice criticized the House for being against the bill.

The new general revenue budget passed by the Legislature totals $4.495 billion, which was $2 million more than the original version of HB 2022 amended by the House and $7 million more than the Senate version of the budget passed Wednesday. It includes $72.7 million in unappropriated revenue.

The bill is a $74 million cut to Gov. Justice’s proposed budget and leaves in place 1.5 percent recommended agency cuts from the Senate version of the budget, including cuts to West Virginia University, Marshall University, and other four-year and two-year colleges and universities.

Many of those cuts will be restored at the end of the current fiscal year on June 30 from surpluses in tax collections, though that still didn’t sit well with some senators.

“The Senate was very clear that we didn’t want cuts out of the general revenue budget, and we should be willing to fight for them,” said state Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne. “I think it’s irresponsible for us to pass this budget, except the cuts we’re talking about to WVU and Marshall, and say ‘guess what? You’ll get your money July 1.'”

Leaving the podium to address his fellow members, Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said he didn’t like the budget compromise either, but it would be irresponsible not to vote yes on it.

“It’s crossed my mind that I’d like to reject it and send it back over to (the House), but it would be a foolish maneuver about like they did (Friday). We don’t need to be fools. What we need to do is be smart about how we’re handling the taxpayer’s dollars in the state of West Virginia.”

Speaking to reporters Saturday night at the Governor’s Mansion, Justice said he was pleased overall with the session even though he couldn’t negotiate an agreement on a phase-out of the personal income tax. More than 35 bills introduced on behalf of the governor were successful, including the new intermediate court of appeals, elevating tourism and economic development to cabinet-level positions, and updates to state alcohol laws based on lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m really pleased and everything in lots of different ways,” Justice said. “We’ve been able to maintain a flat budget for the last three years and still do all kinds of greatness for everybody in the state of West Virginia, so it’s good stuff. Overall, with the exception of the income tax…other than that, it was a great session, really and truly. Lots and lots of good stuff was accomplished.”

The legislative session that started Feb. 10 was the first for the Republican supermajorities in the Senate and House of Delegates, with 23 GOP senators and 77 Republican delegates passing long sought-after legislation with which previous Republican legislatures struggled.

Lawmakers passed two education reform bills aimed at expanding the state’s charter school pilot program, increasing the number of schools allowed from three every three years to 10 every three years. The state now has one of the most expansive education savings account programs in the country with the bill creating the Hope Scholarship. And Justice signed a bill creating a pathway for alternative certification of teachers

The Legislature passed the Jumpstart Savings Account program backed by State Treasurer Riley Moore that will allow students to save for tools, equipment, and certificate fees for vocational programs. Lawmakers made changes to contractor licenses and other occupational licenses, as well as changing how unions can collect dues from members. However, a bill that would have allowed out-of-state people with occupational licenses to transfer those licenses to West Virginia didn’t make it out.

The state now has its first intermediate court of appeals after lawmakers in the Senate and House finally came to an agreement on how the court would operate. The bill was supported by Justice and finally received enough support in the House to pass.

Other legal bills include a bill providing liability protections to businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, improvements to juvenile restorative justice programs, expanding work-release programs, and recommendation numerous changes to criminal statutes to the state’s Sentencing Commission to consider.

The Legislature also passed a sweeping broadband regulation and expansion bill that will create rules for internet service providers to use state rights-of-way to expand fiber, officially create an Office of Broadband to work on expansion and data projects and provide greater consumer protections.

Several bills that completed legislation results in much debate this session, including a bill to prohibit transgender student-athletes from playing in single-sex sports, a bill requiring doctors to inform patients of chemical abortions about the possibility of reversing the procedure, a bill that would prohibit state and local officials from assisting with federal investigation of firearms law violations that are not laws of the state, and a tightening of needle exchange rules.

While the session normally ends at midnight, the House adopted two concurrent resolutions extending and adjourning the session until Monday, May 10, which coincides with legislative interim meetings. The extension would allow the Legislature to override any vetoes by Gov. Jim Justice. The Senate had not acted on those resolutions as of press time.

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