Lawmakers return, put off education bills
CHARLESTON — Resumption of a special session ostensibly called to address public education issues put off education bills Monday, but in relatively rapid-fire fashion, corrected and re-passed a number of bills that Gov. Jim Justice vetoed for technical errors, and also passed a number of supplemental appropriation bills — including bills moving tens of millions of dollars of additional funding for repair of crumbling state roads.
That included a $54 million appropriation to the state Road Fund, made possible by Gov. Jim Justice earlier Monday raising estimates for overall 2018-19 tax collections by $42.3 million, creating a total budget surplus for the year of $72.6 million (Senate Bill 1016).
The bill passed over objections from Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, whose regular session bill to increase legislative oversight of Division of Highways spending was vetoed by Justice.
“I’m a little concerned we’re giving them more money without no oversight,” Smith said.
However, Sen. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, countered that the Legislature’s obligation is put as much additional money as possible toward repairing crumbling state roads.
“The Legislature has one thing we need to do with respect to roads, and that’s to provide funding,” he said, adding, “Let’s
make sure the governor knows the ball is now in his court.”
Additionally, the Legislature passed bills moving $34.5 million from various 2018-19 Highways accounts into road maintenance for the current budget year (House Bill 119), and to move $287.55 million of 2019-20 Highways funds into road maintenance and equipment purchases for the next budget year, as part of Justice’s efforts to “fix the damn roads.”
The one-day resumption of the special session that began March 10 did not delve into Gov. Jim Justice’s call for public education “betterment,” although Democrats in both houses introduced a series of individual education reform bills, including a bill to give promised pay raises averaging 5% to teachers and school service personnel.
The Senate on Monday rejected on a mostly party line 15-17 vote a motion to by Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Mar-ion, to immediately take up and pass the pay raise bill.
“The governor, the speaker and the president made a promise,” Prezioso said, referring to a gubernatorial press conference last fall when Justice pledged to provide a second round of pay raises to teachers and service personnel. “I think we now have a chance to keep that promise.”
Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harri-son, argued that the Legislature should not hold the pay raises hostage as leverage for other education proposals.
However, Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, stressed that House and Senate leadership had agreed that education issues would be put off until the next resumption of the special session.
“We made it very clear we were going to take up education on a specific date,” he said.
Sen. Kenny Mann, R-Mon-roe, who Senate President Mitch Carmichael previously removed as Senate Education chairman, voted with Democrats in favor of the motion. Sens. Paul Hardesty, D-Logan, and Michael Maroney, R-Mar-shall, were absent.
In the House, delegates adopted on a 79-18 vote, over some objections from House Democrats, a resolution setting up four 25-member select committees on education to study the yet-to-be determined reform proposals.
On Monday, Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, assigned eight education reform bills introduced by Democrats to the four select committees.
In a statement, House spokesman Jared Hunt said the select committees are intended to maximize delegates’ input when the education special session resumes.
“With all delegates expected to be in Charleston and paid during the session, the speaker wants to make sure they are working and actively participating in this process while they are here,” he said.
Among corrected versions of legislation that Justice had vetoed for technical errors that were re-passed Monday were bills to:
• Clarify that state anti-hazing laws apply to fraternities, sororities, and other organizations that are not affiliated with or sanctioned by institutions of higher education (Senate Bill 1004).
• Allow the state Board of Physical Therapy to conduct criminal background checks on applicants for license, and to disqualify applicants found to have been convicted of certain crimes (Senate Bill 1006).
• Create a student loan repayment program for mental health providers who practice in under-served areas of the state (Senate Bill 1009). Participants would be eligible for up to $10,000 a year of loan forgiveness for up to three years.
• Create a voluntary certification process for community drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers (Senate Bill 1012).
• Offer tax credits to privately owned water and sewer utilities that provide reduced rates for low-income residential customers (House Bill 117).
• Continue the Upper Kanawha Valley Resiliency and Revitalization Program through 2024 (Senate Bill 1001).
Meanwhile, the fate of a bill to encourage investment in low-income communities designated as Opportunity Zones through enhanced tax credits (House Bill 113) was in doubt after the House rejected a vote to suspend a constitutional rule requiring bills to be read on three separate days.
That means the bill will be on amendment stage on the House floor when the special session resumes.
Just when the session will resume is unclear, as leadership tries to reach consensus on a public education reform agenda. While discussions have leaned toward resumption in June, Takubo said Monday it could be as early as next week.