CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The House of Delegates began its first regular session of the 83rd Legislature this week with the state’s budget situation front and center.
As is required by the West Virginia Constitution in the year following a gubernatorial election, the regular session began a month later than usual to allow the incoming administration time to organize and prepare its proposals.
Gov. Jim Justice delivered his first State of the State address to lawmakers Wednesday night. In his address, the Governor outlined his plan to close the nearly $500 million gap in the state’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget almost entirely with tax increases.
House leadership expressed significant disappointment with the budget plan, which could represent the largest tax increase in the history of the state.
“We had hoped that this Governor would live up to his commitment to restructure government and not put additional tax burdens on our citizens,” said House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha. “While we want to work with the Governor to balance our budget, I do not believe the approach he presented is something this Legislature – or the voters who elected us – will support.”
In addition to the tax increases, the Governor’s proposed budget also features significant increases in state spending. The administration’s General Revenue budget, introduced in House Bill 2018, contains $318 million more spending than the current Fiscal Year 2017 budget, and $126 million more than the budget outgoing Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin submitted to the Legislature in January.
House Finance Committee Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, said his committee has broken up into several small groups, each of whom have been assigned to review the spending proposals of specific agencies and recommend any efficiencies or savings they can find.
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In other news this week, the House on Wednesday amended its rules to clarify that all witnesses appearing before its committees must be sworn in before offering testimony or answering lawmaker questions.
In the past, House Rule 84a simply gave committees authority to place witnesses under oath; it did not require it. The change adopted this year now makes this mandatory.
Speaker Armstead said this was a long overdue reform to improve the legislative process.
“We want to make sure all testimony before our committees is truthful and accurate, and placing those offering such testimony under oath – just as they do in Congress or our courts – will help ensure that,” Speaker Armstead said. “Committee members make decisions every day on bills that affect our citizens, and we want to make sure those decisions are based on accurate information.”
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The House Committee on Government Organization this week took a step to try and improve the state’s regulatory climate and promote job growth.
Committee Chairman Gary Howell, R-Mineral, announced the creation of a new Subcommittee on Anti-Competitive Rules and Regulations which is tasked with reviewing and revising the rules and state code that oversee occupational licensing boards – the boards that regulate and allow people in certain professions to do business in West Virginia.
The committee will focus on rules and code sections that have been identified as a hindrance to job creation and business expansion in fields regulated by these boards.
“The goal is to make it easier for people to start a business in a field that currently requires an occupational license,” Chairman Howell said. “The new subcommittee will ensure we can see that goal through by eliminating obsolete regulations.”
Delegate Danny Hamrick, R-Harrison, will serve as chairman of the subcommittee. Delegates Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock; Terri Sypolt, R-Preston; Mike Caputo, D-Marion; and John Williams, D-Monongalia, will also serve as members.
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Many House committees held organizational meetings this week and began working on the bills they have been assigned to review this session.
The House Judiciary Committee approved its first bill of the session on Friday. House Bill 2006 is the first of a series of bills that will be introduced this session to improve the state’s Ethics Act.
The bill – sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer – increases penalties for individuals who retaliate against workers who turn over information about wrongdoing or waste at state agencies under the state’s Whistle-Blower Law.
People who turn over information under the Whistle-Blower Law are protected from retaliation by their superiors or co-workers. House Bill 2006 increases the fine for violating this law from $500 to $5,000, and allows public agencies to fire employees who break this law. Current law only allowed state agencies to suspend the lawbreaker for up to six months.
The House passed a similar bill (House Bill 4636) last year, but it did to pass the full Legislature prior to the end of last year’s session. This year’s version of the bill is stated to be up for a full vote in the House on Wednesday.
Other ethics-related bills expected to be introduced this session include bills that will prohibit nepotism, forbid city council members or mayors from also being city employees, require lawmakers to disclose contributions during the legislative session, strengthen the state’s pension forfeiture law, and require businesses bidding on government contracts to disclose lists of interested parties in their companies.