Whether through deregulation, privatization or employer protections, West Virginia lawmakers have made clear about halfway through the 2021 legislative session that their focus is on legislation to benefit businesses.
Their bills don’t address — and in some cases make worse — longstanding problems in West Virginia, such as poverty and poor health, both problems that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thursday was the mid-point in the legislative session. As of Friday, lawmakers had completed their work on bills to make way for charter schools and declare that already-illegal teacher strikes are illegal. Another bill, which sends money previously allocated for public schools to private education service providers, passed the House of Delegates and is moving through the state Senate.
Lawmakers had also completed action on a bill that makes it easier for companies to classify workers as independent contractors, which would result in lost benefits, and a bill that shields companies and employers from lawsuits if they acted recklessly during the pandemic, resulting in illness, death, income loss or other consequences.
Both the House of Delegates and the state Senate must agree on a bill before it becomes law.
The West Virginia Senate has passed a bill placing additional restrictions on harm reduction programs, which include needle exchanges; legislation that does not follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s best practices guidelines. Those programs prevent HIV and hepatitis B and C, build relationships between West Virginians who use drugs and health professionals, and reduce the risk of overdose by providing naloxone. West Virginia has the nation’s highest rates of overdose deaths, as well as acute hepatitis C and hepatitis B infections, according to the CDC. Acute cases are those newly diagnosed; they may or may not develop into chronic conditions.
The Senate also passed another bill that requires low-income families to be tested for drugs before they receive financial help. People who use drugs tend to avoid that test and go without help, so their families, including children, also lose income.
The House of Delegates, meanwhile, has completed action on a bill that rolls back regulation of chemical storage tanks, and a water quality bill that increases the level of some pollutants allowed in West Virginia waterways. Both bills could expose more West Virginians to carcinogens, and as of 2019, West Virginia had the third-highest cancer death rate in the country, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Both Republican senators and Gov. Jim Justice said at the start of the session that the elimination of the personal income tax in West Virginia was a top priority. But the Business and Industry Council, which heavily influences lawmakers, came out against that bill Thursday, saying that increasing various sales taxes to make up for the lost revenue would result in many customers shopping in border states, MetroNews reported.
Here’s the status of some key bills as of March 15, 2021:
- House Bill 2012 (lead sponsor: Delegate Doug Smith, R-Mercer) makes way for 10 charter schools and virtual charter schools in West Virginia. It was signed into law by Justice on Thursday. West Virginia already had legislation allowing for three charter schools, but advocates for charter schools said the law was too restrictive to be effective.
- House Bill 2013 (lead sponsor: Delegate Joe Ellington, R-Mercer), which has passed the House of Delegates and is now being considered in the state Senate, gives parents $4,600 — the amount the state spends on average per student — to spend on educational expenses, such as private school or home-school programming. The student would have to leave public school to receive the money. Beginning in 2024, parents who already pay for private school would be eligible for the money, resulting in an estimated cost to the state of about $100 million per year.
- Senate Bill 11 (lead sponsor: Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson), puts in state code that teacher strikes are unlawful and prohibits school districts from closing schools for strikes. The measure has passed both chambers and is awaiting the governor’s signature.
Businesses and workers
- Senate Bill 272 (lead sponsor: Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley) seeks to give employers more ability to classify workers as independent contractors. Advocates for workers have warned this could result in workers losing benefits, like being able to file for unemployment if needed, and access to the state workers compensation program. Supporters of the bill have said workers want more freedom. The bill has passed both chambers, and has gone to the governor.
- Senate Bill 277 (lead sponsor: Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley) has passed both the House and Senate and prevents West Virginians from suing employers, healthcare providers and others over COVID-19 related problems, except in limited circumstances. Supporters say businesses need protection from lawsuits. The bill awaits the signature of the governor, who had previously asked lawmakers to introduce a COVID-19 lawsuit immunity bill.
- Senate Bill 542 (lead sponsor: Sen. Rupie Phillips, R-Logan) was originally designed to make it difficult — if not impossible — for utilities to shut down the state’s struggling coal plants. After pushback from utilities, consumer advocacy groups and other lawmakers, who pointed out that West Virginians would pay more on their utility bills as a result, the proposed law was gutted. This bill is still being considered in a Senate committee.
Health and environment
- House Bill 2598 (lead sponsor: Delegate John Kelly, R-Wood) exempts oil and gas operator above-ground tanks, which can contain carcinogens, from regulation meant to prevent chemical spills. The bill has already passed the House of Delegates. The Above-Ground Storage Tank Act became law after the 2014 water crisis and mandated stricter regulations of chemical tanks; the oil and gas industry has consistently asked for exemptions, and have already received exemptions in previous years; this year’s bill exempts tanks that are the closest to drinking water intakes.
- House Bill 2382 (lead sponsor: Delegate Geoff Foster, R-Putnam) which pushes back recommended water quality updates at the request of industry, passed the House of Delegates on Friday. In 2015, the federal Environmental Protection Agency recommended states update standards for 94 pollutants. West Virginia’s bill updates standards, which dictate how much pollution can be discharged into waterways, for 24 pollutants instead. This bill was originally HB 2389, but was then combined with an air quality bill.
- Senate Bill 334 (lead sponsor: Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam) seeks to limit the distribution of clean needles to West Virginians who inject drugs by placing a number of restrictions on syringe access programs and their participants. Experts in public health and harm reduction say those restrictions would make programs less effective, if they are even able to operate at all. The bill has passed the Senate.
- Senate Bill 387 (lead sponsor: Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall) would continue a pilot project overseen by the DHHR, which has been in effect since 2017. The program requires Temporary Assistance for Needy Families applicants to complete a questionnaire and flags participants for drug screenings. Supporters claim the goal is to connect those struggling with substance abuse disorder with treatment, but from October 2019 to September 2020, DHHR reported that out of 2,067 completed drug use screening questionnaires, only seven applicants’ drug tests came back positive, indicating that people with substance use disorder who needed help didn’t take the test. Most TANF recipients are children. The bill has passed the state Senate.
- House Bill 2264 (lead sponsor: Delegate Jeffrey Pack, R-Raleigh), would exempt hospitals from certificate of need requirements. Starting in the early 1960s, states used CON laws to try to curb health care spending by making medical providers prove that a need existed before they could open new facilities or expand services to a community. The bill has passed the House.
- Senate Bill 275 (lead sponsor: Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley), introduced on behalf of the governor, establishes an intermediate court of appeals in West Virginia. It has passed the Senate and is moving through the House of Delegates. The bill would create a court to hear appeals before they reach the West Virginia Supreme Court, possibly lengthening cases. Republicans say West Virginians aren’t getting their day in court; Democrats have said those courts are only good for big businesses, who can afford to pay the legal fees as cases drag on.
- House Bill 2363 (lead sponsor: Delegate Geoff Foster, R-Putnam) requires family court judges to assume that custody arrangements that allocate 50% of a child’s time with each parent are best, unless parents can demonstrate in court that other factors should outweigh that requirement. Advocates for victims of violence have noted that abuse of children and adults is often difficult to prove. That bill has passed the House of Delegates and awaits consideration in the Senate.
No movement on other bills of note
- House Bill 2074 (lead sponsor: Delegate Terri Sypolt, R-Preston) meant to protect people who live near fracking operations from associated disruption, has been introduced but not placed on a committee agenda for discussion. The bill would require companies to monitor their air and noise pollution and implement the maximum available technology available to limit that pollution, as well as set up their operations farther away from homes.
- House Bill 2057 (lead sponsor: Delegate Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell) would require counties to survey how many kids are in need of food during summer break or during emergencies when kids are out of school, like in 2020 when the pandemic halted in-person learning. West Virginia was already one of the country’s hungriest states pre-pandemic; this is the third year the Summer Feeding for All bill has been introduced in the House.
- House Bill 2708 (lead sponsor: Delegate Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell) would set a cap of $25 on insulin co-pays and diabetes pharmaceutical supplies and equipment. The bill hasn’t been placed on an agenda. A bill last year set an insulin cap of $100.
- House Bill 2289 and 2783 (lead sponsor of both: Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh) would each loosen West Virginia vaccination law; neither has been placed on an agenda.
Attention-grabbing bills put on pause
- House Bill 2157 (lead sponsor: Delegate Joe Jeffries, R-Putnam) forbids displays relating to sexuality in public school facilities and the teaching of sexuality in public schools. Republican leadership in the House of Delegates has said the bill is not a priority.
- Senate Bill 13 (lead sponsor: Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam) would allow child welfare services providers to decline to provide those services based on their religious beliefs; that could include refusing to place foster children with same-sex couples, for example. It has not been placed on an agenda.
- House Bill 2869 (lead sponsor: Delegate Joe Jeffries, R-Putnam) would prohibit state or local elected officials, the state, or a political subdivision of the state from mandating that people use face masks, face shields or other face coverings. Gov. Jim Justice issued a mask mandate in July; the House of Delegates did so at the start of the legislative session, but the House mandate has not been enforced and the governor’s mandate has not been consistently enforced. The bill has not been placed on a committee agenda.