CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The 2016 legislative session marked a turning point for West Virginia, leaders of the House of Delegates said at the close of the second regular session of the 82nd Legislature.
“Coming into this year, our state was facing significant challenges,” said House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha. “Our economy had collapsed in large part due to the War on Coal and unemployment was spiking to one of the highest levels in the country. Meanwhile, substance abuse was running rampant in our communities, and our state’s budget was faltering under the weight of our struggles.
“We accomplished a great deal this session to address these problems, and I firmly believe our citizens will begin to see the fruits of our labors in the coming months,” Armstead said.
One of the most significant piece of legislation to pass this session was Senate Bill 1, which established the West Virginia Workforce Freedom Act, also referred to as right to work. Lawmakers passed the Workplace Freedom Act in early February, and overrode a gubernatorial veto later that month to get the bill, which goes into effect July 1, enacted into law.
“I think this is one of the most significant economic reform measures to pass in my nearly two decades in the House,” Armstead said. “West Virginia becoming the 26th right to work state has drawn national attention and sent a clear signal that our state is open for business. This law will spur economic growth and help create the much-needed new jobs that will pave a path to prosperity for our state and its citizens.”
The House also took a significant step forward in how the state handles public works projects with the passage of House Bill 4005, which repeals the state’s prevailing wage laws.
“For years we’ve seen a great deal of evidence that these government-mandated prevailing wage rates artificially inflate wages on public projects,” Armstead said. “We must remember: every dollar spent by government is a dollar taken from our hard-working taxpayers, and we as lawmakers must work to ensure their money is spent wisely.
“We have taken this step to make sure workers on publicly-funded projects are paid fair, market-based wages, and at the same time free up resources to complete additional state projects – meaning more schools and more water and sewer projects – which will lead to more jobs overall,” Armstead said.
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On the first day of the session, the House adopted House Resolution 3, creating the Select Committee on Prevention and Treatment of Substance Abuse to focus on ways to combat substance abuse and improve and implement prevention and treatment programs.
Among the 19 bills that passed out of the committee were House Bill 4347, which gives pregnant women priority to substance abuse treatment programs; House Bill 4146, which requires insurance providers to cover forms of opioid drugs that are modified to prevent their abuse; and Senate Bill 627, which allows physicians to decline prescribing a controlled substance if they believe the patient is abusing it or diverting it unlawfully.
Additionally, the House also passed Senate Bill 431, which allows pharmacists and pharmacy interns dispense life-saving opioid antagonists such as Narcan without a prescription; House Bill 4537, which closed loopholes in the regulation of chronic pain clinics; and Senate Bill 6, which implements drug testing programs for recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits in order to get those individuals into treatment programs.
“These measures will make significant progress in our fight against substance abuse and ability to treat those suffering from addiction,” said Health Committee Chairman Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, who also served as chairman of the Select Committee on Prevention and Treatment of Substance Abuse. “While it will take a collaborative effort from many areas of government and our communities to roll back the tide of abuse in our state, these bills will add additional tools to help us address this horrible problem.”
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The House also passed a number of bills aimed at spurring new types of economic growth and job creation, including House Bill 2615, which allows entrepreneurs to engage in “crowdfunding” for business startup and expansion projects.
“One of the biggest hurdles a small business owner faces is the ability to raise capital,” said Finance Committee Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha. “This bill will help them raise the critical funds they need to grow their businesses and create jobs.”
The House also passed House Bill 4228, which will allow transportation network companies, such as Uber and Lyft, to operate in West Virginia.
“This is an extremely popular business model that has caught on in other states,” said House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan. “The passage of this bill will remove the barrier for entry into our state, create jobs, and give business travelers and tourists access to the same convenient transportation services they experience in other states.”
Other bills that target job creation and promoting economic activity in the state included:
Senate Bill 426, which continues the Office of Coalfield Community Development.
House Bill 4502, which creates reciprocity agreements with surrounding states to establish uniform regulations, licensing requirements and taxes for small businesses to ease their regulatory burden.
House Bill 2852, which legalizes the sale and use of fireworks, and directs a portion of the proceeds to veterans’ assistance programs and volunteer fire departments.
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The House also took steps to improve elections and government practices.
House Bill 4013 will require individuals to provide proof of their identity when they vote. The bill allows for a wide array of identifications to be used. It also allows an adult, including a poll worker, who has known the person for more than six months to sign an affidavit attesting to the person’s identity, in lieu of another form of ID.
“The citizens of West Virginia deserve to have confidence that their government is honest, fair, transparent and accountable, and that begins with our elections,” said House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer. “The voter ID law will help reduce voter fraud by ensuring those voting in our elections are who they say they are.”
House Bill 4604 improves the state’s Ethics Act by extending the statute of limitations for actions on ethics violations from 2 to 5 years. It also lowers the burden of proof for ethics violations from the strict “beyond a reasonable doubt” to a “clear and convincing evidence” standard, and extends the deadline for completing an ethics complaint investigation from one year to 18 months.
“House Bill 4604 will improve the way the Ethics Commission can identify and prosecute ethics violations,” Shott said. “Extending the statute of limitations is important because many agencies are only audited once every three years, and it is often these audits that spot potential violations. This bill will ensure those abuses can be prosecuted and also make sure the Ethics Commission is not held to an unreasonable burden of proof when handling these cases.”
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The House also passed legislation giving counties and municipalities more options with how to fund infrastructure projects in their jurisdictions.
House Bill 4009, the Letting Our Counties Act Locally Act, allows county commissions to propose road projects and fund them using a sales tax that would not exceed 1 percent.
The tax and project proposal would first have to be approved by a majority of the voters in a local referendum. The road plans would also have to be approved by the Division of Highways. The bill would not turn over responsibility of roads to the counties, but rather give counties the option of self-funding specific improvements.
House Bill 4612 allows counties and municipalities to partner with the Division of Highways to fund road projects through the creation of tax-increment financing, or TIF, districts. The projects would be funded through the sale of bonds that are paid off using the increased tax revenue that results from increased economic activity in developing areas.
“These bills create two new tools for our counties and municipalities to use to fund road projects in their areas,” said lead sponsor Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha. “It gives local governments the ability to assess and fund their needs at the local level.”
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With the completion of the regular session, members of the House will now spend the next few days negotiating with the Senate over a compromise on the fiscal year 2017 budget.
The House has passed a balanced budget plan, which features no tax increases, implements further reductions in state agency spending and fully funds the Public Employees Insurance Agency for the coming fiscal year.
A conference committee will work with their counterparts in the Senate in the coming days to hammer out the differences with that chamber’s version of their budget.
“This was an extremely tough budget year,” Nelson said, “but I’m confident in the next few days we can reach a compromise that meets our constitutional requirement of passing a balanced budget while containing state spending and avoiding any tax increases on our hard-working citizens.”