West Virginia Capital Legisslature


The West Virginia Legislature ended a three-day special session Tuesday, where they passed 35 of 44 bills requested by Gov. Jim Justice. 

After weeks of anticipation, Justice called the special session on Sunday afternoon with just 30 minute notice. The special session overlapped with previously scheduled interim meetings, leading to several being canceled between Sunday and Tuesday.

The focus of the special session, according to Justice’s proclamation, included a number of policies to address issues in the state’s correctional facilities as well as the allocation of millions in surplus money. 

Most of the appropriations bills were taken up for consideration and passed Tuesday by both chambers after hours of discussion and debate. 

The funding for the appropriations comes from the last fiscal year’s surplus, which totalled a little more than $650 million. Following the lead set Sunday, lawmakers in the House and Senate continued to suspend constitutional rules Tuesday to push the proposed appropriations, as well as other bills, through.

Of the 44 bills requested by Gov. Jim Justice in his call for a special session, 29 were updated and amended budget appropriations.

Volunteer fire departments

In his call for the special session, Gov. Jim Justice requested lawmakers to approve allocating about $12 million to help fund volunteer fire departments in the state through two bills.

On Tuesday, lawmakers approved the bills aimed at helping VFDs — which account for a majority of West Virginia’s fire departments.

Senate Bill 1021 — passed unanimously by the House Tuesday with four members absent and not voting — creates two special revenue funds in the Department of Homeland Security for fire protection. The Legislature will be able to add money to the fund, which can be disbursed to county commissions by the secretary of Homeland Security to help with fire protection.

Members of the House voted down an amendment on SB 1021 on the floor Tuesday from Del. Geoff Foster, R-Putnam, that would have allowed the money to be used for recruitment and retention in addition to equipment.

“One of the biggest problems [for volunteer fire departments] is not being able to spend this money on recruitment and retention — the most difficult thing is trying to recruit members,” Foster said.

His colleagues, however, including Dels. Vernon Criss, R-Wood, and D. Rolland Jennings, R-Preston, disagreed with the idea of using the money for those reasons. Criss said the amendment would “dilute” the intention of the bill by allowing local departments to spend money on “elusive purposes” like recruitment and retention. 

“We’re this close to finally getting some money to at least our fire departments. The last thing I want to do is for us to come out of here today and our fire departments not get funded,” Jennings said. “If you want to spend money on retention and recruitment — explain that to me, bring some [specific] ideas.”

Later Tuesday in the Senate, members voted to amend the House’s version of Senate Bill 1022, changing the revenue source from surplus money to unappropriated general revenue funds. The change allows the funding to become a regular, recurring line item in the annual budget instead of a one-time allocation from surplus money.

Criss, speaking on SB 1022, told his colleagues that if they approved the bill, they would be voting in favor of a tax increase. Del. Wayne Clark, R-Jefferson, said in floor discussion that he “made a commitment” to his constituents to “not raise their taxes” when he came to Charleston.

“I respectfully request that we don’t concur [with these changes],” said Del. Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, criticizing the move to turn this into a tax.

In a heated floor speech, Del. Rick Hillenbrand, R-Hampshire, said the bill is about saving lives and it was “ludicrous” to debate for fear of raising taxes.

“If you don’t vote for this, shame on you, shame on all of you for kicking this can down the road,” Hillenbrand said. “I hope, if you don’t vote for this, that your constituents vote you out.”

Despite the criticism, and after more than an hour of debate, the House concurred with the Senate’s version of the bill 69-5 with 26 members absent and not voting.  

Randy James, president of the West Virginia State Fire Chief’s Association and chairman of the state Firemen’s Association, testified in front of the House Finance Committee Monday that membership is one way funding will benefit fire departments.

“It comes back to members,” James said. “If you have members that you are constantly asking to go door to door and solicit and sell hot dogs, you’re not going to get those people for very long. They didn’t join to go beg for money. 

“So we’re hurting on members,” he said. “If we can get some funding, hopefully you’ll see the clock increase for people coming through the door and helping us.” 

Last week, numerous EMS agencies across the state joined volunteer fire departments in signing a letter requesting Justice to include permanent, annual funding for them in the special session call.

EMS, however, were not included in the call or directly appropriated any money during the special session. According to a statement sent Sunday by the West Virginia EMS Coalition’s board of directors, at least 15 organizations licensed to provide 911 emergency responses have shuttered in the state since 2022, affecting 14 counties. Without some sort of permanent funding, the coalition anticipates more closures.

“While we recognize the Governor and certain members of the legislature may prefer to support fire and EMS through a source other than the insurance surcharge, we are disappointed the Governor would aid fire departments with surplus funds pending a permanent solution while ignoring the equally significant needs of EMS,” the statement continued.

Pierpont Community and Technical College hangar

House members spent more than an hour Tuesday debating a budget appropriation to allocate $25 million to build an aviation hangar for Pierpont Community and Technical College’s aviation maintenance technology program.

The appropriation came from Senate Bill 1029, which was approved unanimously by the Senate on Sunday with one member absent and not voting, and was passed by the House Tuesday 67-30.

The money will be given to the state Department of Economic Development, and the Economic Development Authority will use it to buy the hangar, which will house classes for the college.

Right now, Fairmont State University and Pierpont use a combined hangar for their aviation programs, according to Del. Clay Riley, R-Harrison. The new hangar would allow the latter to expand its program.

Several delegates — including Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh — questioned why the appropriation was necessary right now, during a special session meant to deal mostly with the state’s correctional facilities.

“The [emergency] light above this Capitol is not on because we’re short on airplane hangars. It’s on because we’re in a correctional crisis,” Steele said. “We have 800 vacancies [in corrections] and we’re barely putting $20 million in, but we’re willing to come in here on an emergency basis to build an airplane hangar for a school?”

Del. Joey Garcia, D-Marion, said the creation of the hangar would provide an opportunity for the region to invest in technical workforce development and train students who will, hopefully, become members of the state’s workforce.

“It’s always the right time to do the right thing, and as a state we have sold ourselves across the country on being nimble, being quick and delivering on what companies want to come here,” Garcia said. “It’s important that we do this right now — not four months from now, not six months from now, because that’s going to be students going out of state [in the meantime].”

The money designated for the hangar is from an unappropriated surplus fund from the budget bill passed during the regular session.

“I don’t know if this is bad and I don’t know if I’m necessarily opposed to it, but I am opposed to it at this moment,” Gearheart said. “I’m not certain we’ve been through the process of determining that right now, today, in August, is the right time to allocate these funds simply because we haven’t spent it on anything else. We’re not considering this because it’s something that really needs to go through.”

Corrections pay 

The House and the Senate passed a set of three bills meant to address a staffing crisis within the state’s jails and correctional facilities. The $25 million allocation will allow the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation to increase pay for correctional officers with incentives in high vacancy areas, provide annual step increases for all correctional officers and allow bonuses for correctional officers and non-uniformed workers. 

The state’s jails and prison were a main reason Gov. Jim Justice called the special session. Justice declared a state of emergency in the facilities last year because of staffing levels in facilities that are over capacity. More than 300 members of the West Virginia National Guard are still working in correctional facilities to fill the vacancies. 

While lawmakers were busy discussing these bills, a lawsuit 

EditSignwas filed on Tuesday against Gov. Justice and other leaders over working conditions in the state’s regional jails and prisons.

Marshall University

The Senate and the House of Delegates on Tuesday passed a bill appropriating $45 million to Marshall University for a new cyber security program. The legislation passed the House

EditSign 65-29 with six members absent. In the Senate, the bill passed 28-3

EditSign with three members absent.

During a House Finance Committee meeting Monday, Toney Shroud, vice president for strategic initiatives at Marshall University, testified that the money would be used to build a 78,000 square foot building across the street from the school’s Old Main. The building would house 13 cyber security labs and space for private industry. 

“Marshall has been awarded some grants from the Department of Defense, which will also play into this,” Shroud said. “We’ve applied for some grants with the ARC… this building will be the linchpin for us. We have all the pieces in place. We now just need to build up the building, get this structure operational.”

Shroud said the program would create “six-figure” jobs in a field with no unemployment. 

Speaking in favor of the bill Tuesday, Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, said the program would make Marshall an “eastern hub” for the United States. 

“Being outside the D.C. grid, this will create very many opportunities, including coordination with the Appalachian Regional Commission,” he said. “I think this is a big step for the state of West Virginia. It happens to be located in the area that the senator from Cabell and I represent, but this is a great step for our state.”

Other appropriations of note:

  • The Legislature: The House and the Senate approved allocating $11.5 million to the Legislature for technological improvements. Senate Bill 1019 passed the Senate unanimously on Sunday and passed the House 91-5 with four members absent and not voting on Tuesday. The proposed legislation did not detail what the technological upgrades would include. The bill now goes to the governor’s desk for a signature before becoming law.
  • Arts, Culture & History: The Legislature approved appropriating $4 million to the state Department of Arts, Culture and History. Of the $4 million, $1 million will go toward the state’s celebration of the Semi-Quincentennial of the United States and $3 million will go toward a new Outdoor Natural Resources exhibit at the Culture Center.
  • Department of Highways: The House approved on Tuesday a $150 million appropriation for the Department of Highways. The money will go to the State Road Fund and will be used to purchase equipment and invest in paving projects.
  • Forestry: A bill to send $4 million to the Division of Forestry for new equipment was passed by the House on Tuesday after passing the Senate on Sunday.
  • State police: Lawmakers in both chambers approved on Sunday allocating $1 million
  • to the Department of Homeland Security for the West Virginia State Police. The money will help fund security cameras and updated locking systems for the State Police Academy.

** West Virginia Watch is a nonprofit media source. Articles are shared under creative commons license. Please visit https://westvirginiawatch.com/ for more independent Mountain State news coverage.

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