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We’re heading into the home stretch

Here we are folks, ending week eight and starting week nine — the final week — of the 2020 legislative session.

I’m not ready to do a look-back yet. That will come in next week’s column. But I can at least say that my predictions of a boring session have been mostly on the money. Outside the tantrum by Del. Eric Porterfield, R-Mercer, this session will go down as the most uneventful in the last decade.

I think the two biggest (pending) pieces of legislation that could pass this year are the foster care reform bill and the creation of an intermediate court of appeals. I want to be careful not to predict the future, as both bills are in the opposite chambers and still in committee.

As of this writing, House Bill 4092 — creating the foster parent and foster child bill of rights and raising the reimbursement rates to placement agencies, foster families, and kinship families — is still in the Senate Judiciary Committee. It also still has to go through the Senate Finance Committee, which just passed a budget that doesn’t include any additional funding for foster and kinship families — a cost of $16.8 million for fiscal year 2021.

One has to wonder if it’s possible one bill is being held hostage for another. Senate Bill 275, creating an intermediate court of appeals, is the child of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan. Last year, the House Judiciary Committee didn’t even take up the Senate’s intermediate court bill, but this weekend they took up the bill.

The House Finance Committee’s budget proposal doesn’t include any court funding — not even with the Governor’s request for funding for the new court. The estimated cost of the new court, based on a fiscal note from the state Supreme Court based on the version adopted by the House Judiciary Committee — is $6.34 million in its first full year of operation.

The Senate hasn’t had very many wins this session. The effort to raid the two casinos with greyhound racing for $17 million by ending the Greyhound Breeding Development Fund (and by proxy cause the casinos to end greyhound racing) failed. The Senate’s tangible personal property tax reform bill (with tax increases for sales and tobacco taxes) passed, but the joint resolution the bill was dependent on failed when it didn’t get the two-thirds vote needed.

I can’t imagine Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, wants to head into the primary and general elections when the Democrats only need to pick up three seats (assuming they don’t lose seats themselves) and have nothing to show for the Senate Republican majority’s time during the 60-day session.

Senate Republicans need the intermediate court of appeals bill to pass the House. Vice versa, the House has a number of bills, including the foster care bill and the West Virginia Impact Fund bill — the brainchild of House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay — they want to see the Senate pass. Don’t kid yourself, this kind of horse trading goes on all the time.

Luckily, with many of the smaller bills out of the way, the House and Senate have plenty of time to work out the differences regarding these bills and the two budgets, which look like they’re on their way to being combined and done easily by day 60 this Saturday. In fact, I’m not sure there will be very much excitement as the clock on Saturday ticks down to midnight.

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For a change of pace, let’s look at the governor’s race. Democratic candidate for governor Ben Salango continues to pick up union endorsements. The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 53 endorsed Salango, a Kanawha County commissioner, earlier this week. The Parkersburg-Marietta Buildings endorsed Salango two weeks ago.

It remains to be seen who the teachers and school service personnel unions will endorse, but Democratic candidate Stephen Smith made it clear in a social media post that he has received more individual donations from educators than any other candidate.

Of note, the Smith WV Can’t Wait campaign has released a number of policy proposals developed from multiple meetings across the state. Most recently, a Mountaineer Service Corps program would mirror the 1930s Works Progress Administration to create 40,000 jobs for major infrastructure projects. The cost: $265 million from proposed increases in the natural gas severance tax and natural gas liquids tax.

On the Republican side of things, former Commerce Department Secretary Woody Thrasher got tired of waiting for a response from Gov. Jim Justice to schedule debates prior to the May 12 primary. Last week Thrasher challenged Justice’s advisor in the governor’s office, Bray Cary, to a debate instead.

Justice has been consistently criticized for absenteeism over his tenure, especially during this legislative session. You’re more likely to see Cary or Justice administration General Counsel Brian Abraham meeting with lawmakers during the session than the Governor.

No word yet on whether Cary has accepted Thrasher’s invitation to debate, though former Berkeley County delegate Mike Folk has accepted the invitation.

(Adams is the state government reporter for Ogden Newspapers. He can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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