2010 Legislative Session Roundup: West Virginia

Faced with tough budget challenges, legislators avoided most major new initiatives and controversial bills during the 2010 regular session.  Using federal recovery and lottery dollars, most major budget cuts were avoided and some coal severance taxes will be shifted to coal-producing communities. 

The State did enact a number of education reforms, from extending the compulsory school attendance to age 17, strengthening technical and vocational programs, and adding supplemental funding for limited English proficiency studensts.  Other progressive victories incldue a public financing pilot program for state Supreme Court elections in 2010, allowing the uninsured quicker access to the state CHIP childrens health insurance program, support for disposing of electronic waste, bills to strengthen the ability of local governments to rehabilitate or condemn abandoned buildings, and the potential expansion of toll roads in the state.

Less attractive were new laws to require health care providers to encourage women seeking abortions to view ultrasound images and to create special business courts for the benefit of business defendants.  Notable defeats for progressives included earned income tax credit, green buildings, unemployment compensation reform, racial profiling, and recycling bills that failed, although a bad bill to undermine mineral rights for small landowners was also defeated.

Governor Manchin may call legislators back for a special session, likely in May, to address education law changes in order to improve chances of winning a federal Race to the Top grant during a second round of applications in June (the first round failed to qualify the state for these federal monies). 

Budget and Taxes:  Using federal recovery dollars and lottery surplus dollars, West Virginia avoided some of the worst budget cuts imposed in other states, but programs like libraries and other services will still suffer cutbacks.  HB4177 will, after a five-year phase-in period, allow coal-producing counties to keep an additional 5 percent of coal severance taxes, shifting about $18 million of revenue each year from the state budget to the coffers of often poverty-striken coal-producing counties for infrastructure and economic development projects.

A seasonal sales tax holiday on gun purchases (HB4541) was passed by the legislature, only to be vetoed by the Governor.  While no foe of the NRA, Governor Manchin stated he could not approve a bill that would mean less revenue for an already vulnerable state budget. 

Education:  Legislators approved HB4593 to extend the state's compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 17, beginning with 2011-12 entering class of high school freshmen, and, to reduce state dropout rates, expand alternative and technical education options for students.  HB 4211 provides supplemental funding in order to provide alternative programs for limited English proficient students.

Public Financing Pilot Program for Supreme Court Elections:  The biggest progressive victory this year was the historic passage of a pilot program for state Supreme Court Elections.  West Virginia Citizen Action Group’s Gary Zuckett sat in the gallery and "watched a little piece of history being made."  HB 4130, (introduced by Speaker Thompson and Delegate Armstead) will establish a $3 million pilot project for public financing of the 2012 Supreme Court elections with hope that success will lead to expansion of “Clean Elections” funding for lawmakers themselves. 

Health Care:  HB 4373 eliminates the 12 month prior insurance "look back" period, the period for which children in families over 200% of the Federal Poverty Level have to be uninsured before qualifying for CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program) which will enable children to have quicker access to health insurance.

E-Waste Disposal and Recycling:  SB 398 prohibits the disposal of certain electronic devices, such as computers, monitors, and television sets in a West Virginia solid waste landfill.  SB 627 increases the civil and criminal penalties for the crime of littering.

Cleaning Up Vacant Properties:  Addressing a problem faced by many declining urban areas, HB 4034 will now allow West Virginia cities to register vacant, dilapidated properties and impose fees on their owners based on a model in based on a model used in Wheeling to encourage their rehabilitation or demolition.  HB 4038 also gives cities and counties a lien of $5,000 or 10 percent -- whichever amount is greater -- of the insurance policy proceeds to hold property owners responsible for demolishing burned-out structures and removing the debris.

Toll Roads:  The state Parkways Authority will now be able to operate additional toll roads in the state (SB427).

Abortion:  SB597 will require health-care providers to inform women seeking abortions that they can view fetal ultrasound images, if an ultrasound is planned as part of the procedure.

Business Litigation: Under pressure from the business community to expedite appeals over complex business litigation, House Bill 4352 allows the state Supreme Court to create special business courts in judicial circuits with more than 60,000 people.

Notable Progressive Defeats:  A bill to provide a state earned income tax credit for an estimated 90,000 qualifying workers with children, SB 172, was defeated, as was an an Ethics Bill (4016), which would have banned legislators from returning as lobbyists for one year, passed the House with unanimous consent, but died in Senate Finance, a graveyard for many good bills.

Also defeated was a Green Buildings Act, HB 4008; unemployment compensation for part time workers, which would have drawn down millions in federal stimulus dollars, HB 2497, racial profiling training for police, HB 4184; and creation of the Offices of Oral Health and Minority Affairs, HB 4153SB 489, which would have required the WV Solid Waste Management Board to study the state’s recycling rates, was gutted by the House Government Organization Committee.

Stopping A Bad Mineral Rights Bill:  Citizen Action Group and the West Virginia Environmental Council mobilized to defeat SB 369, which would have changed the definition of “shallow” gas wells in ways that would have meant mineral owners would see gas holdings stolen by near-by drilling.

West Virginia Citizen Action Group - Capital Eye