House Speaker Roger Hanshaw (R-Clay) watches the House of Delegates' unanimous rejection on April 9, 2021 of the Senate's proposal to abolish the personal income tax. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislature

The West Virginia Legislature has concluded its 60-day session after passing nearly 300 bills. In the last hours of the session Saturday night, lawmakers advanced a bill aimed at President Joe Biden’s executive actions on gun control and another that will almost certainly close life-saving harm reduction programs in the state.

But one bill that Governor Jim Justice and some lawmakers had listed as a priority — the repeal of the state personal income tax — did not make it through. 

On Friday, West Virginia delegates voted 100 to 0 to reject the Senate’s version of the bill, mainly in opposition to the corresponding tax increases it included. 

Among other provisions, the Senate’s tax plan increased the sales tax; created new taxes, such as taxes on professional services, computers and broadcasters; and their budget bill cut 1.5% from state agencies and programs. The governor had called on the House of Delegates to take it up for a vote, despite widespread opposition in that legislative body.

On Saturday, the House and Senate agreed on a budget that doesn’t include the personal income tax repeal. House Finance Committee Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, described the final nearly $4.5 billion general revenue budget as a compromise agreement between the two chambers. Some state agencies and programs were trimmed 1.5%, but funding to higher education, which had been an area of contention, is maintained through general revenue surpluses, according to Ann Ali, a House of Delegates spokeswoman. 

Gun control

In response to President Biden’s announcement Thursday that he would pursue executive action on gun control, West Virginia lawmakers amended HB 2694, sponsored by Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, to expressly prohibit West Virginia police officers from enforcing those executive actions and other federal guns laws that aren’t in state law. The bill passed Saturday and is on its way to the governor.

After mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado, Biden instructed the Justice Department to take action on “ghost guns,” firearms that are assembled at home and lack serial numbers, as well as to create a template that states can use to enact “red flag laws,” which allow courts to order guns be seized from those deemed a threat to themselves or others. He has also encouraged Congress to take action. 

As amended by Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, the bill now states “red flag” laws are “an anathema to law-abiding West Virginians, who cherish their natural rights and liberties which are guarded by both the Constitution of the United States and the West Virginia Constitution.” The legislation says no court in the state may issue an order to seize firearms under any “red flag” law.

These changes were not thoroughly explained on the House floor by House leadership at the time the amended bill reached that legislative body, and many delegates said they were unaware of them.

States first began passing “red flag” laws, also known as “extreme risk laws,” in response to the Parkland, Florida, shooting in 2018, when 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Such laws may reduce suicide risk, and are supported by most Americans, according to surveys cited by PBS. Critics have raised objections about due process. 

In West Virginia’s bill, a red flag law is defined as “a law under which a person may petition for a court to temporarily take away another person’s right to possess a firearm which it is otherwise lawful under the law of West Virginia for the respondent to possess.”

This could affect other areas of West Virginia law meant to prevent violence. 

Under West Virginia state law, courts may issue domestic violence protective orders blocking perpetrators from contact with victims they’ve placed in reasonable fear of bodily injury; those orders include notification that the person is prohibited from possessing a firearm or ammunition. Also, under current West Virginia mental hygiene law, adults with “personal knowledge of the facts of the case” may petition for courts to temporarily take away another person’s right to possess a firearm if courts find the individual is “likely to cause serious harm to self or others due to what the applicant believes are symptoms of mental illness or substance use disorder.”

That bill now goes to the governor who may sign, veto, or let it become law without his signature.

Harm reduction

Also Saturday, the House agreed to support the Senate’s version of an anti-harm reduction program bill. 

The version of the bill amended and passed by the Senate moves the bill back toward its original form, as introduced by Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam. Beginning in January of next year, harm reduction programs offering syringe access services would need to have been licensed by the West Virginia Office of Health Facility Licensure and Certification — or stop operating.

But licensure isn’t left to the professionals. To even be considered, a program would need to get a letter of support from a majority of both the county commission and local governing body.

Additionally, programs dispensing syringes would be required to operate with a goal of a one-to-one exchange — meaning participants have to bring in a syringe to get a new one — barcode syringes, offer medical and recovery services, and reapply for certification annually. Program participants would need to have a West Virginia ID in order to access syringe services, and would not be allowed to pick up syringes on somebody else’s behalf.

The bill contradicts the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s best practices, and comes in the midst of an HIV outbreak in West Virginia’s capital city.

Research demonstrates that harm reduction programs reduce community spread of HIV, increase the likelihood people with substance use disorder will enter treatment, and save money the government would spend on healthcare for people with substance use disorders, 

That bill is also on its way to the governor. 

Amendment to benefit coal communities a casualty 

SB 542, as originally written, would have made it difficult, if not impossible for utilities to shut down the state’s struggling coal plants. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Rupie Phillips, R- Logan, would have forced utilities to continue to burn coal at 2019 rates. 

Now, the watered-down bill simply requires any coal-fired power plant owned by a utility to maintain a minimum 30-day aggregate supply — something utilities have told lawmakers they already do. The bill also asks the Public Service Commission to consider economic impact when deciding whether to let utilities shut down coal-fired plants. 

Before passing the bill 95-3 late last week, the House of Delegates had adopted an amendment by Delegate Ed Evans, D-McDowell, establishing a committee to plan for economic revitalization and diversification in coal country. 

The committee would have, among other duties, looked for grant money to assist struggling coal communities, created a fund to collect and distribute public revenue to address shortfalls in funding for counties, school systems, and municipalities in impacted communities; and searched for opportunities to maintain and increase jobs in coal mines and coal-fired power plants.

Senators had refused to concur with changes to the bill with that provision intact, and the House overwhelmingly voted on Saturday to recede from their position, meaning they agreed to pass the essentially toothless bill without the amendment.

Another bill lawmakers listed as a high priority did pass this session, HB 2013, creating the Hope Scholarship program.  Sponsored by Delegate Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, this bill 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.

Saturday, the West Virginia House of Delegates approved a bill to bring themselves back into special session in May coinciding with interim meetings, if needed, in case lawmakers wanted to override a governor’s veto. But the Senate soundly rejected that bill late Saturday.

Several other contentious bills died last week, including a bill that would have significantly weakened the above-ground storage tank regulations put into place after the Freedom Industries chemical spill, one that would have prohibited local removal of Confederate and other monuments without state approval, one that would have given state officials authority over political messaging on social media, and one that would have purged the voter rolls more often and moved up deadlines for absentee ballot applications and early voting.

Completed bills include: 

HB 3293, sponsored by Delegate Caleb Hanna, R-Nicholas, prohibits trans women and girls from participating in single-gender sports teams consistent with their gender identities. The Senate took out language that would have affected trans boys. The Senate also expanded the bill to include college athletes; it previously focused on middle and high-school students. MetroNews reports the governor says he will let it become law.

HB 2982, sponsored by Delegate Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette, started out requiring doctors to tell patients the abortion pill process can be “reversed,” based on the theory that taking a high dose of progesterone after the first of two bills could reverse the process. The bill was later amended to require those health care providers to tell patients to seek guidance from their doctors if they want to “counteract” the effects of the first of two abortion pills, and also tell patient the effort to “counteract” may not work. Obstetricians/gynecologists have said the bill inserts confusion into the decision-making process and that using progesterone for this purpose is unproven and could be dangerous. This bill is on its way to the governor.

HB 2266, sponsored by Delegate Matthew Rohrbach, R- Cabell, extends Medicaid coverage for new mothers to 12 months postpartum. This would mostly be paid for with federal funds and would affect people who make up to 185% of the poverty level. This bill is on its way to the governor.

HB 2382, sponsored by Delegate Geoff Foster, R-Putnam, updates standards for 20 pollutants discharged into West Virginia waterways, while postponing review of 70 other standards. The law deals with how much of certain pollutants that industries can discharge into West Virginia waterways. The Environmental Protection Agency recommended the state update standards for 94 pollutants in 2015; following a request from the West Virginia Manufacturers Association to hold off, this bill updates standards for 24 pollutants instead. Of the remaining 70 pollutants, some are not regulated at all in West Virginia, while some are regulated but their standards won’t be updated to reflect the latest science. The governor signed this bill into law on April 7. 

House Bill 2918, sponsored by 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. This bill is on its way to the governor.

Senate Bill 387, sponsored by Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, would continue a pilot project overseen by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, 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. This bill is on its way to the governor.

Reporter Lauren Peace contributed to this story.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the results of a vote on a measure to bring the Legislature back into special session in May. The House approved the measure, but the Senate rejected it. An earlier version also incorrectly identified Kayla Kessinger’s district. She represents Fayette County.

Erin Beck is Mountain State Spotlight's Community Watchdog Reporter.