Feb. 24, 2017
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The House of Delegates this week took strides to combat human trafficking, substance abuse and drug crime in West Virginia, while also continuing efforts to craft a Fiscal Year 2018 budget.
The House passed 12 bills this week – the second full week of its 60-day session. One bill that garnered the most support was a bill that redefined and toughened the state’s human trafficking laws.
House Bill 2318, Relating Generally to Human Trafficking, passed the House unanimously on Wednesday. The bill was sponsored by Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, and Delegates Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia; Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay; Amy Summers, R-Taylor; Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell; Carol Miller, R-Cabell; Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette; Joe Canestraro, D-Marshall; Linda Longstreth, D-Marion; Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha; and Erikka Storch, R-Ohio.
“Human trafficking a modern-day form of slavery and it’s happening all over our country,” Kessinger said. “Eighty percent of the victims are women and children, and they’re often subject to violence and forced prostitution. When 17,000 people are trafficked every year in the United States, we have to do something to crack down on and prevent this heinous crime.”
In addition to increasing penalties for instances of human trafficking – particularly those involving children – the bill strengthens the legal definitions of what constitutes human trafficking and its associated crimes in order to help law enforcement and prosecutors better combat it. of Delegates In addition to increasing criminal penalties, the bill also makes it easier for the state to receive federal aid to combat trafficking, something Delegate Fleischauer said was vitally important.
“We still need to do a lot more for victims of human trafficking,” Fleischauer said prior to Wednesday’s vote. “We don’t know how many we have, we don’t know what services are available around the state, and one of the things this bill will do is allow us to be eligible for grant money from the federal government.”
The bill is now pending before the Judiciary Committee in the state Senate for further consideration.
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Meanwhile, the House Finance Committee continued its deliberations over the state’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget.
This week, the committee held budget hearings for the state Supreme Court and the departments of Veterans Assistance, Environmental Protection, Military Affairs and Public Safety, and Health and Human Resources. The Department of Health and Human Resources – which oversees a host of programs, including the state’s Medicaid program – represents roughly 27 percent of spending under Gov. Jim Justice’s $4.5 billion budget proposal.
Finance Committee Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, has divided his committee up into sub-groups to analyze the spending plans for individual agencies and recommend any areas of potential savings.
Chairman Nelson hopes to have an alternative budget framework ready for lawmakers to begin working through the legislative process in the coming weeks – which would be significantly ahead of schedule, given that the House’s budget plan historically does not advance until the last week of the 60-day session.
Also this week, the House committees on Judiciary, Health and Human Resources, and Prevention and Treatment of Substance Abuse advanced several bills designed to help combat the state’s substance abuse epidemic.
One bill, House Bill 2318, prohibits the production, manufacture or possession of the powerful opioid pain medication fentanyl.
Appearing before the Committee on Prevention and Treatment of Substance Abuse Thursday, former U.S. Attorney Bill Ihlenfeld urged lawmakers to crack down on fentanyl, saying it was the leading cause of overdose deaths in the state last year.
“Fentanyl is the greatest threat that we face right now in West Virginia,” Ihlenfeld said.
In addition to fentanyl, the bill would also prohibit the production, manufacture and possession of fentanyl analogues and derivatives, such as carfentanil, which is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than regular fentanyl.
Other bills designed to combat the substance abuse epidemic and its associated crimes include House Bill 2579, which increases penalties for transporting controlled substances; House Bill 2648, which increases penalties for manufacturing or transporting controlled substances in the presence of minors; House Bill 2526, which classifies additional drugs as controlled substances; and House Bill 2367, which establishes a new criminal offense for organized retail crime, a coordinated shoplifting and re-selling scheme which is often used to fund people’s drug habits or other criminal activities.
A sixth bill, House Bill 2620, would establish the West Virginia Drug Overdose Monitoring Act, which will set up a central state repository for drug overdose and crime data to better help state officials and law enforcement track drug statistics. This will also help the state secure grant funding from the federal government.
“We want to send a strong message to out-of-state drug traffickers that we will not tolerate them peddling their poison in our state,” said House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer. “We also want to give our law enforcement, prosecutors and state officials the tools to better combat this epidemic.”
All six bills were approved by the House Judiciary Committee on Friday. They will now move to the full House for consideration next week.