West Virginia’s historic Republican supermajority came into the 2023 session with the power to pass any bill they wanted, and bold plans to tackle some of the state’s most ambitious issues.
“Everybody’s always excited and optimistic about everything that goes on on day one,” Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, told MetroNews on that first day of the session. “There’s 31 out of 34 [Republicans] right now. A mega-majority, a super-duper majority is what you would call them, so a lot of this work can be done in advance and be able to be managed.”
While parts of that agenda were accomplished — like tax cuts, creating 2,500 teachers’ aide positions and dividing the Department of Health and Human Resources — many of the state’s most pressing issues fell to the wayside as divisions emerged and threatened some of their most ambitious plans (to illustrate, only eight of those 25 bills passed out of the Senate on the first day will become law).
Fights over the state’s role in funding private businesses, how to regulate alternative energies, and social issues ate away at time on the calendar as moderate and far-right Republicans struggled to see eye to eye, with a Democratic party that seemed eager to push the wedge.
As the session dragged on, the divisions became more evident. The final weeks were marked by fights over social issues like banning gender-affirming care for minors, prohibiting child marriage and outlawing marital rape, which remains legal in the state. Meanwhile, some of the party’s most ambitious bills were jeopardized, or fell to the wayside, like substantive raises for teachers, an affordable health care option for West Virginians facing “the Medicaid cliff,” and a data portal to help foster families.
“It’s phenomenal to me that one of the most spirited debates that we’re having on this House floor in the last several weeks is whether kids can play sports or not,” said Del. Jonathan Pinson, R-Mason, on the final day of the session as delegates considered a bill to allow students to play sports immediately after transferring schools. “We’re talking about a non-issue, folks.”
Still, the decisions of this Legislature will impact West Virginians for years to come and going into the session, there were major issues facing the state and its residents. Here’s what lawmakers did or didn’t do on these challenges.
(Click on the headings below to jump to an issue.)
Public schools are underperforming
Lawmakers are well-aware of the challenges West Virginia students are facing. Recent tests from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that only 22% of the state’s 4th grade students are at or above proficient reading levels. By 8th grade, the number drops to 21%.
Legislative leaders said the session would be focused on public education, but only a small number of substantive bills passed by the final day, with many dying well before.
The biggest among them would see the state hire 2,500 teachers’ aides for kindergarten through 3rd grade classrooms, create mandatory dyslexia screenings and train teachers in a phonics-based literacy program that has been successful elsewhere at raising student reading performance.
A bill that will regulate school discipline and make it easier for teachers to remove disruptive kids from classrooms also passed. According to a union-led working group, student behavior is a core concern for teachers and parents. This bill is partly in response to that, but it does nothing to directly address racial disparities in the rates of suspensions.
Other equally ambitious bills, like a four-day school week pilot program that would have allowed individualized instruction and paid teacher planning time on the fifth day, failed. Among those bills were two targeting long-sought and substantive teacher raises. Those were rejected in favor of a smaller, $2,300 raise for all teachers, though the pay bump will likely be nullified by PEIA premium raises. Another bill aimed at studying student hunger in an attempt to fill the gaps left by summer feeding programs’ that were more active during the height of the pandemic also failed.
Notably, the most divisive K-12 education bills this session also failed. A bill that could censure classroom discussions about race, another that would require all schools to conspicuously display “in God we trust” in their buildings, and another to allow the teaching of “intelligent design” as an alternative to the theory of evolution all failed. When it comes to bills impacting colleges, however, a bill allowing concealed carry on most areas of college campuses has already been signed by Gov. Jim Justice, in spite of opposition from university administrators and students.
Inequities in our tax system
While lawmakers went into the session saying tax cuts were a priority, the outcome will disproportionately favor wealthier West Virginians and could lead to cuts and future hikes that will put more of the burden on low-income people.
Despite the November defeat of Amendment 2, legislators made it clear that they weren’t ready to give up on trying to lower property taxes. Republican lawmakers included the issue in their broader tax reform push this session, justifying it with the state’s estimated $1.1 billion surplus.
There was movement on other taxes as well, with Gov. Jim Justice pushing a House-supported plan to cut the personal income tax by 50% over three years. But the Senate declared that particular proposal dead on arrival, countering with a more modest 15% cut.
By late February, a new deal cutting the personal income tax by 21.25% and offering various tax credits similar to the voter-rejected Amendment 2 had emerged and was passed within a week.
The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy cautions that the cut, praised by supporters as the “biggest tax cut in history”, will not benefit everyone equally, returning far more money to higher earners and corporations, rather than those at the bottom of income scale who could use it most.
And if the state later finds itself in the position of needing to mitigate the tax cuts in the future it is likely that it will do so through increases on consumer and sales taxes, changes that historically weigh more on people with lower incomes.
West Virginia faces multiple public health crises: ongoing opioid overdoses, HIV outbreaks, the highest rate of diabetes mortality in the country and high rates of other chronic conditions. All of this is exacerbated by poverty and poor access to care across much of the state.
Over the past two months, West Virginia lawmakers have often spoken of state residents’ high rates of death and disease. When considering a bill to split the state’s Department of Health and Human Resources in three, delegates repeatedly cited the state as in need of critical change to address its biggest public health problems.
Although some are skeptical whether it will actually improve the state’s health, that DHHR bill has now been signed by the governor. But other pieces of proposed legislation, bills that experts said would allow West Virginians to make healthier decisions and had bipartisan support, died this session. Bills to make child care more affordable, increase insurance reimbursement for sexual assault medical exams, make tobacco harder to access and put doula services within reach for low-income parents never made it through a chamber.
Ultimately, lawmakers also didn’t act on two measures to expand health care access: a bill that would have increased the amount of dental care possible for Medicaid recipients and another that would have created an affordable insurance option for working-class residents never made it out of the Senate,
Instead, what lawmakers pushed through the finish line are bills that will send money to controversial crisis pregnancy centers, require doctors to share debunked medical information with people seeking abortions, put limits on treatment beds for people with substance-use disorder and eliminate tools health analysts could have used to keep health care costs down.
A bill that would prohibit transgender adolescents from seeking physician-recommended medication in the state underwent some last-minute revisions. The final piece of legislation still generally bans doctors from performing gender-affirming surgery or prescribing hormones to minors, but allows an exception for hormone therapy for a minor diagnosed with severe gender dysphoria by two doctors (at least one of whom must be a psychiatric doctor) in cases where it may prevent self-harm or suicide.
Lawmakers did pass some measures that could improve health; a bill to cap the price of insulin at $35 will become law, as well as a measure that aimed to enhance access to properly-trained sexual assault forensic examiners. They also passed a bill to require the West Virginia Department of Environment to collect information about PFAS “forever chemicals” in public water systems and put more than $560,000 in the state budget to improve access to rape kits.
But some are worried it will be harder post-session than it was pre-session for West Virginians to make healthy decisions. Katrina Byers, the former Tyler County Family Resource Network director, believes many of the senators and delegates voted for bills that will directly harm the low-income families she worked with.
“I don’t think they care what their constituents think,” she said. “I’m just not sure.”
Byers tries to remain optimistic and will continue to connect folks with resources to help their lives. But after the past two months, she thinks explaining to people she helps the impact of lawmakers’ actions will be difficult.
“I would say ‘I’m sorry,’” Byers said. “I don’t know. It’s really hard.”
People keep dying in West Virginia jails
West Virginia jails are crowded, unsafe and understaffed, and legislators did very little to change that during the session.
As of January, there were over 1,000 vacancies for correctional officers. A bill that would have given additional pay raises to correctional officers, in an effort to reduce record-high vacancies, failed to pass either chamber. The bill would have provided a $10,000 raise over two years. Another bill that failed would have provided free female hygiene products to inmates.
Even though West Virginia has one of the country’s highest rates of jail deaths, legislators didn’t put forth any bills that directly addressed this.But they did pass SB 495, which rolled back a bill passed last year that kept almost all jail records confidential, including videos and incident reports related to deaths. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, was proposed in response to reporting by Mountain State Spotlight that highlighted how last year’s legislation cloaked what happened inside the state’s jails in secrecy.
Another bill that passed was an effort to reduce the time spent in pre-trial detention for those who miss court dates. The bill would require anyone arrested on a capias warrant — which is typically issued for missing court — to be granted a bond hearing within three days.
While the policy needs of Black West Virginians are varied, there are many inequities that clearly need to be addressed.
But there wasn’t much legislation directly targeting racial inequities this session, with notable issues like racial gaps in maternal and infant mortality and workforce participation receiving little attention. Other bills that would have a significant impact on communities of color, like giving additional American Rescue Plan Act funding to localities with the goal of helping marginalized communities, and bills providing support to minority economic development, died in committee. And a bill that did pass, addressing school discipline in the classroom, is unlikely to close the significant disparities in suspensions and expulsions affecting Black students.
One of the most popular proposals with racial justice advocates, the CROWN Act to prohibit texture and style-based hair discrimination, also died without being placed on a committee agenda.
Ultimately, perhaps the most significant action taken on race and discrimination this session is something that lawmakers tried but failed to do: pass the Anti-Racism Act of 2023. The legislation addressing discussions of race in classrooms had been heavily criticized by civil rights and racial justice groups, who said it would “whitewash history”. The bill, which almost passed last year, cleared the Senate on the first day of the session, but was never taken up by the House Judiciary Committee.
Workforce shortages in key areas — from teachers to prison guards to DHHR
West Virginia is dealing with a high number of staff shortages and vacancies in fields ranging from corrections to nursing to child protective services, a trend fueling multiple crises across the state. A major question for lawmakers this session revolved around how they planned to address these issues and if improving worker benefits and compensation would be a part of their solution.
The results have notably been mixed. A bill to raise corrections officers’ pay failed, as did measures targeting school cafeteria staff shortages and school counselor work loads. A bill that would make it easier for teachers’ assistants who work for 10 or more years to apply for full teaching positions also failed.
Another bill that will allow retired bus drivers to work more hours without affecting their pensions passed. So did a bill allowing retired child and adult protective services workers to return to work in those fields.
Looking at educators specifically, teachers unions have flagged low pay as a leading reason for the roughly 1,500 teacher shortage in classrooms. Two bills that would have substantially raised teacher salaries and make West Virginia public schools more competitive with surrounding states died in committee. And while bills that will raise all teacher and many state employee salaries by $2,300 passed, the effect will likely be canceled out by a PEIA premium raise expected to increase employee premiums by roughly 25%.
An ongoing need for drug addiction treatment and recovery
Despite West Virginia’s continuing high levels of drug overdose deaths, lawmakers did little to help people with substance use disorders during the 60-day legislative session. Instead, they passed laws that further restrict treatment and recovery options.
Most notably, lawmakers placed a limit on how many residential substance use treatment beds each county can have: no more than 250. Counties that have already passed this limit aren’t required to reduce treatment beds.
Lawmakers argued that several other pieces of legislation were intended to help people in treatment and recovery. But many people working in these spaces stressed the laws could have unintended consequences, and both measures ultimately failed.
One of the bills would have required “residential substance use disorder service facilities” to offer patients who leave their programs transportation back to a state where they have lived or have family ties; the bill passed both the House and Senate, but died when the bodies wouldn’t agree to changes.
Another bill criticized by people working in recovery passed the Senate on the first day of the session but was voted down in the House on Friday. It would’ve prevented some Cabell County recovery residences from kicking out residents without going through a formal eviction process, save for a few exceptions. It would’ve also required the state to study Cabell as a pilot program and consider expanding these protections to other parts of West Virginia.
But recovery residence operators said a provision in the law that would’ve opened recovery residences up to more lawsuits, combined with the transportation law, would’ve made it so financially burdensome to run a recovery residence that new facilities won’t open.
They were also concerned that having to go through a formal eviction process would’ve made it hard to protect the sobriety of other residents. Research shows recovery residences help many people get better, and large parts of the state have few or no high-quality recovery residences.
Safety net programs are chronically underfunded
While the state dedicates about a quarter of its total budget to its health department, many of its social safety net programs designed to support families in poverty often go underfunded. As Mountain State Spotlight reported in February, state efforts to financially support people with catastrophic illnesses, reduce smoking rates and help people meet their basic needs have had their funds cut at the expense of West Virginians’ health.
Legislators didn’t pass any bills this session intended to decrease food scarcity, reduce unemployment or combat homelessness. However, efforts to limit benefits also failed. A House bill that would have required those receiving federal food benefits to either be working or attending work training programs wasn’t passed. Legislation limiting the duration of unemployment benefits passed the Senate, but died in the House.
Lawmakers did also pass a bill requiring the state to conduct a demographic study of homeless people, which includes a requirement to find out if offering services to the homeless increases their population. While homelessness has been decreasing across West Virginia, the state’s task force on homelessness no longer meets and cities like Charleston, Morgantown and Huntington are seeing increased numbers of people living outside.
Widespread problems funding county emergency medical services
For years, West Virginia’s EMS agencies have asked for help addressing a mass exodus of workers, largely triggered by poor pay and burnout. Unlike every neighboring state, West Virginia didn’t have a dedicated source of state-level funding for EMS.
This year, West Virginia lawmakers came close to changing that, but the bill failed in the final hours of the session. The measure would have increased a fee paid on fire and casualty insurance that currently only goes to volunteer fire departments; if it had become law, it would have provided an estimated $6.2 million to the EMS Equipment and Training Fund.
The fund was created during the 2018 legislative session, but has never received a dime.
Lawmakers did pass legislation that allocated $10 million to the newly created EMS Salary Enhancement Fund. EMS workers have said poor pay is a large reason why so many of their peers have left the industry. Recently, the state lost more than 35% of emergency medical technicians and 15% of paramedics, according to the WV EMS Coalition.
EMS workers also wanted lawmakers to pass a third bill that would’ve allowed county commissions to impose a $1 fee on certain tourism and recreation activities to fund EMS providers and fire departments. That bill would’ve given local EMS agencies more discretion about how to use money — including using it to enhance salaries. But the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee never took it up for discussion.
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