The House Education Committee meets earlier this session. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

Gov. Jim Justice signed the tax cut bill into law, lawmakers are advancing a tax break for rare earth elements and a measure to raise pay for lawmakers. 

But first, a bill to hire 2,500 teacher aides and improve literacy in West Virginia schools has been gutted and then revived.

‘A hill to die on’: House guts child literacy bill, Senate tries to revive it

A priority bill of both House and Senate leadership, which would have the state hire 2,500 teachers’ assistants to be placed in kindergarten through third grade classrooms, train teachers in a phonics-focused curriculum that has proven successful elsewhere and require school boards to create an intervention system to catch kids falling behind, has had most of its key provisions removed.

A strike-and-insert amendment voted on in less than three minutes during a House Education committee meeting Monday afternoon gutted the bill, leaving only new requirements for dyslexia screenings. The committee approved it unanimously.

House Education Chair Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, said pieces of the legislation were still being debated by delegates, and that there was another similar bill that had already passed the body still in play.

Del. Dave Foggin, R-Wood, is a high school teacher on the House Education Committee.

“As a body, I think we’re trying to do what’s best,” Foggin said. “I didn’t say it in committee, but I said it behind closed doors: If you were a politician, that would be a hill to die on, to promote reading.”

Ultimately Foggin voted to gut the bill, but said he believes some of its proposals, like the teachers’ assistants, will return in some form.

Sen. Amy Grady, R-Mason, during a meeting of the Senate Education Committee earlier this session. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

The bill’s sponsor, Senate Education Chair Amy Grady, R-Mason, said she was surprised by the move, especially as she’d communicated with House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, who sponsored a similar bill in his chamber, and got assurances it would pass.

“No one on this side of the building knew what was going to happen,” Grady said, referring to the physical divide between the House and the Senate. “There was no discussion or questioning of why that was being done.”

Through a spokesperson, Hanshaw declined to comment.

In response to the House Education committee’s move, this morning in her committee, Grady amended effectively the same language that was struck into another bill.

She noted that Gov. Jim Justice already set aside funding for the bill’s program in the upcoming year’s budget, something he announced at his state of the state address.

“There was no reason” for the swap, Grady said this morning. “I still haven’t been informed of a reason.” —Ian Karbal

Lawmakers move to raise their own pay after next election

So far this session, lawmakers have advanced bills that raise the pay for teachers and state employees by $2,300, while additional pay raises have died. But lawmakers also have been moving a bill to give themselves a more significant pay bump after the next election.

SB 740 originated in the Senate Committee on Rules last week, passed the Senate, and is set to go to the House floor later this week. It increases the amount of money the state’s citizen legislators are paid, as well as their per diem reimbursement.

Since 2009, lawmakers have made a flat $20,000 during the 60-day regular legislative session, plus an additional $150 per day they’re in session. They’re also eligible for additional pay during interim sessions and a varying amount of reimbursement for expenses, depending on whether they can commute daily to Charleston or have to stay overnight.

The bill would increase all of those amounts. If it becomes law, starting in 2025 lawmakers will be paid about as much as West Virginia’s per capita income, or the average amount that an individual West Virginian earns. This year, that’s about $28,000

The measure would also bump up the per-day compensation from $150 to $200, and increase the per diem reimbursement. 

Earlier this year, the Citizens Legislative Compensation Commission, which meets every four years under the state constitution, recommended tying lawmakers’ pay to the per capita income. 

The bill passed the Senate 26-7 last week; it was on the House Finance Committee agenda this afternoon but hadn’t been taken up as of 4:45 p.m. —Erica Peterson

Tax breaks for extracting rare earth elements

Del. Bill Anderson, R-Wood, lead sponsor of the rare earth elements bill, speaks on the House floor this month. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

Lawmakers are set to pass a bill tomorrow that would exempt the extraction of rare earth elements from severance taxes. 

Rare earth elements have unusual conductive or magnetic properties that make them an essential component of many modern electronic devices. 

The bill under consideration would exempt the extraction of rare earth elements and other related minerals from severance taxes for the next nine years. Last year, lawmakers advanced a similar bill to do the same but for only five years. That bill died on the final day of the legislative session after an unrelated amusement tax provision was added.

Lawmakers have previously said they’re excited about the economic potential of rare earth metals. But West Virginia’s history of economic and environmental problems brought by coal and other extractive industries provides some reason for caution. —Duncan Slade

Justice signs tax cut deal

Gov. Jim Justice and lawmakers at a bill signing for a major tax cut deal on Tuesday. Courtesy photo

Surrounded by state lawmakers and a whole lot of balloons, Gov. Jim Justice signed a sweeping tax cut bill into law, calling it the largest in state history.

The bill signing comes after more than two years of prolonged debate between the governor and legislative leaders over how to cut taxes. It will reduce the state income tax by 21.25%, could trigger additional income tax cuts and will provide several other tax rebates. Here’s more about what’s in the proposal. —Duncan Slade

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.

Duncan Slade is Mountain State Spotlight's Deputy Managing Editor