Members of the Senate Finance Committee consider a revamped foster care bill on March 10, 2022. Photo by Will Price / WV Legislative Photography.

Anyone who’s watched the West Virginia Legislature for a while knows that lawmakers can change bills in the blink of an eye, with little or no warning. We saw a prime example of that this week, and lots more. Here’s a roundup, with fewer than 36 hours left in this year’s regular legislative session.

Foster care

No one doubts West Virginia’s foster care system has significant problems. Lawmakers were on track to address some of those problems, with a bill that would provide raises to Child Protective Services workers and offer additional help and transparency to those worried about the state’s most vulnerable children. 

The bill passed the House of Delegates almost unanimously, but fell apart in the Senate Finance Committee, where committee Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, introduced a substitute that stripped out many of the bill’s provisions, including the CPS worker raises. Reporter Amelia Ferrell Knisely has been following the bill all session, and reported on the last-minute changes.

Education policy

In state legislatures around the country, lawmakers have been trying to gain more political control over what children get taught in the classroom. Conservative politicians have pushed many of these measures under the guise of fighting “critical race theory,” a term that reporter Ian Karbal pointed out has lost much of its meaning in the current political debate. 

Ian looked at West Virginia lawmakers’ attempts in this direction, and another less-publicized measure that could gain them even more control over teachers and what they teach.

SNAP benefits

Children in West Virginia go hungry at a rate higher than almost any other state, and lawmakers are taking some steps to curb that problem, as Amelia reported

But in that same story, Amelia noted that lawmakers also failed to extend or eliminate a deadline that, come this fall, will mean thousands of adults who can’t prove they’re working will lose emergency food benefits. As one food bank director said, many of those adults have jobs, but “long gone are the days of lots of jobs that pay benefits and are 40 hours a week.”

50-50 custody

Sometimes, bills can be introduced for years and years before they gain any traction with enough lawmakers to become relevant. Ian reported this week on one such bill, which one delegate has been championing for years based on his individual experience. A version of it passed last year, but without a key provision.

Now, a bill that reinserts that provision is nearing passage. That bill would force family court judges to default toward a 50/50 shared child custody arrangement between divorcing parents. Advocates say it would make it harder for abused spouses to leave their marriages, if they worry their children would be in danger.

Capitol Tracker

Our reporters have been using Mountain State Spotlight’s Capitol Tracker to update the progress of various bills in the hectic last days of the session. Among the updates:

| Reporter Douglas Soule told us about some changes to a bill that would reduce the time West Virginians can draw unemployment benefits. The bill increases the number of weeks from 12 to 14 (still much lower than the current 26 weeks), as well as other changes.

| Reporter Quenton King gave us the latest on two bills in one update: a bill to prohibit abortion more than 15 weeks after conception, and one that would prohibit abortion because of a fetus’ disability.

| Douglas has been following a bill meant to provide different kinds of accountability for millions of dollars to improve broadband internet in West Virginia. Some of that accountability has already been removed, and state officials urged lawmakers to remove even more this week.

| Douglas also updated a bill related to extracting rare earth minerals from acid mine drainage. Both houses of the Legislature have passed the bill, but there are some changes that have to be resolved before it goes to the governor.

You can check the progress of any bill with our Capitol Tracker. And if you’re wondering how one legislator can gut the foster care bill we discussed above, or how the Senate and House resolve differences between their versions of a bill, or anything else about the legislative process, our Power and Possums newsletter course about how the Legislature works is still available. This session may be about over, but there’s always another one on the way.

Other news

| MetroNews reported on the Senate and House nearing agreement on a state budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

| The Charleston Gazette-Mail reported on the House approving a bill that would “force landowners to participate in an oil or gas producing unit.”

| The Associated Press reported on the Senate approving a reinstatement of the state’s film tax credit, despite one senator worrying that it would benefit actress/singer Bette Midler.

Greg Moore is a co-founder. Greg grew up in Morgantown and graduated from West Virginia University. He spent nearly 25 years as an editor and reporter at the Charleston Gazette and Charleston Gazette-Mail....