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West Virginia Legislature special session approves millions in spending

Published: Jun. 24, 2021 at 1:52 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - The West Virginia Legislature held a special session on Thursday to consider a number of proposals before the state begins a new fiscal year on July 1.

Gov. Jim Justice called lawmakers back into session outside a normal window to take up bills and resolutions spanning 28 issues, including approving the allocation of $250 million in budget surplus for various projects. At the end of the day, the House and Senate agreed to approve 24 of the requests.

Lawmakers approved the movement of $48 million for the state Board of Education that will be given to local schools for improvement projects and building upgrades. Some $17 million in funding was transferred to the governor’s civil contingent program, in addition to $7 million for the state’s local economic assistance program. They also signed off on a $2 million project to renovate the Tax Department’s Charleston office, and create a new first floor informational center where the public can get help completing their taxes.

“The actions that the Legislature is taking will allow us to address some of those capital expenditures that the governor and his agencies believe will help them to carry out their mission,” House Majority Whip Paul Espinosa (R-Jefferson) said. “It is simply allowing those dollars to be utilized for those proposed purposes.”

The big winners of the special session were tourism and economic development, a focus of Gov. Justice after elevating them to cabinet-level positions earlier this year. The state will spend an extra $42 million this year on state park improvement projects and further expansion of the Elk River Trail.

Millions more will be spent to upgrade the West Virginia Culture Center and create a new tourism opportunity development fund. State leaders testified this is critical to ensure the booming outdoor recreation industry is able to continue growing, with state campgrounds fully booked a year in advance and massive growth opportunities at the nation’s newest National Park, the New River Gorge.

“There has been a considerable increase in visitor-ship over the last several years,” Espinosa said about spending on park improvements and advertising. “Some of that is due in part to some of the capital improvements that we have made.”

The West Virginia Development Office will also be able to create a new “closing fund” to allow them to get deals across the finish line and bring business to the state. The $30 million that was approved, in addition to $1 million that was allocated for this in the original fiscal year 2022 budget, can be used for things like site preparation, infrastructure improvements or road expansion near where a business wants to locate. Department leaders told delegates this will help get shovel ready projects started and allow better compete with surrounding states, like Ohio’s $250 million yearly closing fund.

Additional appropriations were made to eliminate cuts that were planned for the state’s colleges and universities. A total of $58 million in surplus from this year will be applied to next year’s budget across West Virginia University, Marshall University and other smaller schools.

The House did not approve $2 million in funding for a cyber security review, despite WorkForce West Virginia suffering a recent data breach. Lawmakers also cut funding that was proposed for the Division of Personnel and Water Development Authority.

Legislators passed a bill that will continue a freeze on inmate per diem charges paid by counties that were set to increase at the end of the month for the first time since 2018. Counties currently pay $48 per day, per inmate to the regional jails and that would have gone up to $54, a number that many counties told state lawmakers they are not able to afford. The rate freeze will continue until July 1, 2022, under this agreement.

The fiscal year ends June 30, and state law requires 50% of any budget surplus carried into the new fiscal year to be put into the rainy day fund. The fund is already at record levels and could reach $1 billion by the end of the year.

“Based on the fact that it looks like we are going to have a significant budget surplus, it gives us the opportunity to consider those requests that have been proposed by the governor,” Espinosa said. “Part of today’s process is really to vet those to make sure we are making wise use of taxpayer dollars.”

Lawmakers passed a bill that will now include liquor, along with wine and beer, as alcoholic beverages that can be sold as early as 6 a.m. in some counties. This will close a gap that was left in the so-called “Sunday Brunch” bill passed during the normal legislative session. The change will take effect in 90 days.

Both chambers also adopted resolutions calling for action by the federal government. The first asks President Biden to hold a state funeral after the death of the final surviving Medal of Honor recipient from World War II and every war that has followed. West Virginian Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams is the last living World War II veteran to hold this honor.

The state is also requesting $8 billion in federal funding to assist with reclamation projects of old, abandoned mine sites across the state. These funds would be used to repurpose the mine locations and provide career training opportunities for former miners.

Both the House and Senate adjourned the special session on Thursday evening, preventing the need for the session to be extended to Friday. Special sessions outside of normal interim committee meeting windows, like this one, cost the state around $35,000 per day to conduct.

Another special session is expected to be called later this summer for lawmakers to complete redistricting and a consider a number of other topics.

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