The House Finance Committee meets on Tuesday. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

A family planning bill passes, a bill to limit deliberate intent lawsuits will soon be up for passage in the Senate and the major education proposal to hire 2,500 teachers aides is still alive.

But first, most of West Virginia’s remaining federal pandemic dollars might soon be allocated to economic development.

Lawmakers poised to allocate COVID relief funds for economic development

Lawmakers are moving on a bill that would allocate the bulk of West Virginia’s remaining federal coronavirus relief money to economic development, over protests from advocacy groups that the money could be better spent helping poorer counties and marginalized communities.

The conflict centers around HB 2883, a measure introduced in the House at the request of Gov. Jim Justice. The bill would allocate the state’s remaining $678 million in unspent American Rescue Plan Act funds to a handful of state agencies. Due to federal guidelines, the state must allocate the money by the end of 2024 or send it back to the Treasury Department. 

The bill was introduced in January and received a public hearing shortly after, but went more than a month without being placed on a committee agenda.

That changed Tuesday when the proposal was approved by the House Finance Committee, which introduced and passed a committee substitute for the bill. The committee substitute uses new figures based on the House’s proposed budget and allocates the money differently, giving the bulk of the money to the Economic Development Authority and the Water Development Authority Fund, with smaller amounts to Marshall University, the Department of Economic Development and the Reclamation of Abandoned Property and Dilapidated Property Program Fund.

Lawmakers argue that bringing businesses to the state is a key priority. “I think the direction that we’re looking to go with is to promote and build good jobs,” said Finance Committee vice-chair Del. John Hardy, R-Berkeley, adding that “the best social program is a good job and a steady paycheck.”

Democrats on the committee countered that while economic development was a worthwhile goal, the money could also be used elsewhere, pushing for amendments that would pull some of the money allocated to the WVEDA and shift it towards local communities. The majority of the nearly hour long debate on the bill focused on a proposal from Del. Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, that would allocate $300 million to counties based on their respective percentage of people living in poverty. 

The proposal comes from an “Economic Justice, Fairness and Equity Plan” created by the Charleston-based Tuesday Morning Group.

Proponents said reducing inequity is how the federal government intended for the money to be used, and that after years of failed promises and a lack of funding for programs targeted at marginalized communities, the ARPA funds represent a key opportunity to help. 

But efforts to put aspects of that plan into both the appropriations bill and the budget failed. 

Advocacy groups say the state is using the money to encourage zero-sum thinking that pits economic development against building up the state’s workforce. Hours before the committee meeting, representatives from roughly a dozen advocacy groups gathered to express support for the Tuesday Morning Group plan and called for HB 2883 to be rejected. 

“This is a defining moment and could be a historic moment,” said Rev. Matthew Watts, chairman of the Tuesday Morning Group. He added that the money presents an opportunity “to do something significant to move forward our most challenged communities, to change the trajectory of communities that have been oppressed, that have been exploited, that have been taken advantage of.” —P.R. Lockhart

Teachers aides proposal put back into bill by senators, after House struck it out

The Senate Education Committee meets earlier this month. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

With little debate, the Senate Finance Committee advanced the new version of the “Third Grade Success Act,” which would have the state hire 2,500 teachers’ assistants in kindergarten through third grade classrooms, create a new literacy-focused curriculum for those early grades, and establish mandatory regular screenings for dyslexia.

The original Senate bill containing these provisions was gutted on Monday by the House Education committee. Both House Education Committee Chair Joe Ellington, R-Mercer and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, refused to answer questions about why that decision was made, in spite of the bill having the support of Republican leaders in both chambers, including Hanshaw himself, and Gov. Jim Justice.

So, Senate Education Chair Amy Grady, R-Mercer, who sponsored the gutted “Third Grade Success Act” amended the same policies into the bill that will now move to the full Senate.  As an amended House bill, once the Senate passes the bill, it will go back to the full floor of the House of Delegates for final approval. That means it will bypass Ellington’s committee that gutted the previous measure. —Ian Karbal

Deliberate intent up for Senate vote

Del. John Hott, R-Grant, lead sponsor of a bill to limit deliberate intent lawsuits, speaks to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

A bill limiting lawsuit payouts to injured workers who are intentionally exposed to harm by their employers is set to be taken up by the Senate in the last days of the session. 

The bill cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday after debate about how it treated incidents of black lung. Sen. Laura Wakim Chapman, R-Ohio, offered an amendment that would have lowered the burden of proof for affected miners to prove in court they were knowingly exposed to conditions that led to black lung. In spite of bipartisan support, that amendment failed.

The bill passed the committee 10-7, after an even narrower 52-45 vote in the House. As it stands, the bill has not been amended in the Senate and will be sent to Gov. Jim Justice’s desk once it passes the chamber.

The bill is the product of a compromise between labor and manufacturing interests. For years, limiting payouts in “deliberate intent” lawsuits has been a goal of West Virginia’s timber industry, which has some of the highest rates of non-fatal injury of any civilian job sector in the state. 

Here’s more about how one of the timber companies leading that push to limit payouts to injured workers has a history of workplace safety violations flagged by federal inspectors. 

You can also read reporting from last year about how that same company hired former Supreme Court Justice Evan Jenkins to help convince lawmakers to eliminate these payouts altogether — in spite of ethics laws that would ban Jenkins from lobbying.

—Ian Karbal

Family planning bill passes

The vote tally on HB 2002. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

Senators voted nearly unanimously (31-1) Wednesday to approve HB 2002, which got its origins as a family planning bill last year as lawmakers were debating an abortion ban. Though the bill banning nearly all abortions in the state passed in September, a companion measure expanding access to birth control and increasing adoption tax credits didn’t make it.

The bill re-emerged earlier this session, but without some of the family planning measures which had previously been there. There’s no longer any mention of birth control; instead, it offers a smaller tax credit for non-family adoptions, expands eligibility for early intervention to all adopted kids in the state and creates a way for the state to send funding to pregnancy help organizations — but only ones that explicitly don’t perform abortions. These crisis pregnancy centers, as Mountain State Spotlight reported last month, are “opposed by medical bodies like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and do not need to comply with medical privacy laws.”

Read more: West Virginia lawmakers rushed to ban abortion. Support for families hasn’t been as urgent

P.R. Lockhart is Mountain State Spotlight's Economic Development Reporter.

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