With less than two weeks until the end of the legislative session, West Virginia lawmakers have spent time debating legislation relating to rights, including bills focused on speech, guns, abortion, voting, gender and racial equity.
Bills, which must pass both the West Virginia House of Delegates and state Senate to become law, had to pass one legislative body by Wednesday for a chance at becoming law this year. Wednesday, sometimes referred to as “Crossover Day,” was the 50th day of the 60-day session.
Efforts to support private companies’ forays into childhood education and protect companies from lawsuits related to COVID-19 were Senate priorities at the beginning of session, and these bills moved quickly and have already been signed into law. As of Crossover Day, the state Senate had turned to passing legislation moving up deadlines for early and absentee voting, and a measure to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, giving voters an option to prohibit cities, towns and counties in West Virginia from enacting gun ordinances more restrictive than state law. Both of those measures are pending in the House.
The House of Delegates passed bills to give the Secretary of State oversight over social media political messaging and to require health professionals to tell patients seeking medical abortions that the procedure could be stopped after taking the first of two abortion pills. Obstetrician/gynecologists have warned that House Bill 2982, which is based on the idea that taking progesterone can “reverse” an abortion, potentially subjects patients to “unmonitored experimentation.”
Delegates also passed bills to protect Confederate and other monuments, such as the Stonewall Jackson statue at the West Virginia Capitol, from removal, and to prohibit transgender middle-and-high school kids from playing on single-sex sports teams consistent with kids’ gender identities. Pediatricians and psychologists have warned the bill creates more reasons for trans kids to face mental health challenges.
Also this week, the state Senate passed a bill that would expand the list of qualifying conditions making a patient eligible for medical cannabis, and the House of Delegates passed a bill that would extend Medicaid coverage for new mothers to one year postpartum.
Meanwhile, bills that 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 and to set a cap of $25 on insulin co-pays and diabetes pharmaceutical supplies and equipment were never considered on committee agendas.
Neither was either chamber’s version of the Crown Act. Advocates for racial equity had pushed for the passage of Senate Bill 108 or House Bill 2698; both of which would have clarified that discrimination based on race, which is already prohibited in West Virginia employment, housing and public accommodation law, includes discrimination based on hairstyles associated with race, such as locks, braids or natural Black hair.
News outlets throughout West Virginia reported on the problem after a high school basketball player in Beckley was told his dreadlocks weren’t permitted in 2019, but advocates have since noted that discrimination based on hairstyle is an ongoing problem for Black West Virginians.
Here’s the status of some other key bills, as of March 31, 2021:
- House Bill 2382 (lead sponsor: Delegate Geoff Foster, R-Putnam) pushes back recommended water quality updates at the request of industry. 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. The measure has passed both the House of Delegates and state Senate and is waiting for agreement between the two before it goes to the governor.
- 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. The bill has passed both the state Senate and House of Delegates; both bodies just need to agree on a title change. An intermediate court would hear appeals before they went to the West Virginia Supreme Court, which advocates say would establish a more “fair and predictable legal climate” in the state. In a statement Tuesday, the West Virginia Association for Justice said lawmakers are “helping global corporations increase their profits at the expense of West Virginia taxpayers.” Opponents of the bill have said, in years past, that corporations can spare the cost of more time in appeals courts and thus, more lengthy legal battles with individuals.
- House Bill 2017 ( lead sponsor: Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh) is a complete rewrite of the state criminal code. It passed the House of Delegates Wednesday. The bill, which is more than 400 pages long, increases sentences for more than 200 crimes, according to West Virginia Public Broadcasting. The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union opposes increasing sentences. The West Virginia Prosecuting Attorneys Association has also raised concerns that the legislation would restrict their ability to promise predictability to victims of crime, and both the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity and the West Virginia for Center for Budget and Policy said it could lead to an increase in the already-overcrowded jails. Steele said the bill would “modernize our code, as many of our sister states around the country have done over the past 20 years.”
- House Bill 3300 (sponsored by Delegate Eric Householder, R-Berkeley) passed the House of Delegates Monday. The Charleston Gazette-Mail reports the bill would shift about $204 million a year in tax revenue and lottery profits into an Income Tax Reduction Fund, although questions remained about what programs and services would be cut to make up the cost. Gov. Jim Justice and Senate Republicans said eliminating the personal income tax was a priority at the start of the legislation session, but the bill containing Justice’s proposal never advanced. Now, the state Senate is considering its own version of a tax plan, after MetroNews reported that the Senate Finance Committee amended it into the House bill. That bill would cut the personal income tax initially by $1.09 billion, and would offset that cut with a variety of tax increases estimated at $890 million. According to MetroNews, Justice is displeased with the Senate’s plan because, among other changes to his plan, it shifts the burden to more low-income taxpayers by re-enacting the food tax and raising the sales tax from 6% to 8.5%, slightly higher than Justice had proposed.
- House Bill 2918 (lead sponsor: Delegate David Kelly, R-Tyler) makes permanent the West Virginia Supreme Court’s family drug courts pilot program. Previous legislation made way for the Supreme Court to begin those courts in just four circuits; that limit is removed in the bill. Family drug courts are “specialized court dockets within the existing structure of West Virginia’s court system offering judicial monitoring of intensive treatment and strict supervision of individuals with substance use disorder involved in a child abuse and neglect case,” the law states.
- 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 passed the House of Delegates and is waiting for review in the state Senate. 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.
- 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, and is waiting for review in the House of Delegates Health and Human Resources Committee, where it is on Thursday’s agenda.
- 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 and is on the House health committee’s agenda on Thursday.
- 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.
- 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.
- House Bill 2012 (lead sponsor: Delegate Doug Smith, R-Mercer), makes way for 10 charter schools and virtual charter schools in West Virginia, and was signed into law by Justice earlier this month.
- House Bill 2013 (lead sponsor: Delegate Joe Ellington, R-Mercer) gives parents $4,600 — the amount the state spends on average per student — for 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. Justice signed this bill into law Saturday.
- 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 bill became law without Justice’s signature earlier this month.
- 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. Justice signed this bill into law earlier this month.
- Senate Bill 277 (lead sponsor: Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley) has passed both the House and Senate. The bill prevents West Virginians from suing employers, health care providers and others over COVID-19 related problems, except in limited circumstances. Supporters say businesses need protection from lawsuits. Justice signed this bill into law earlier this month.
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