CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice signed and vetoed a slew of bills Wednesday, the final day for the governor to act on legislation passed by the state Legislature during the 60-day regular session.
Among the measures Justice signed, an effort aimed at developing and increasing broadband internet access, an increase in campaign contribution limits, an exemption for Social Security benefits regarding personal income taxes and a reserve fund for the state’s public employee’s insurance program ahead of expected rising costs.
Justice signed 24 bills into law Wednesday and vetoed 27 measures, including pushes for additional resources and transparency on road repairs.
Justice approved Senate Bill 3, which relates to increasing broadband internet services in West Virginia. The law establishes the state Public Service Commission’s jurisdiction over make-ready pole access, which requires electric utilities to study whether broadband services can be established on existing infrastructure. Another provision, the West Virginia Small Wireless Facilities Deployment Act, gives small wireless facilities public rights-of-way for future technologies.
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, praised the governor’s decision in a statement.
“For far too long, West Virginia has lagged behind in the development and installation of high-speed internet and wireless technologies,” he said. “Broadband infrastructure today is as important to our economy and how we connect as a society as the interstate highway system was in the last century. For our business, education and health care climates to prosper, we must improve our state’s broadband infrastructure.”
Senate Bill 622 changes the donation limits for campaigns; the maximum contribution to candidate committees is $2,800, while the limits for political action committees go to $5,000 and state party executive committees go to $10,000. The maximum donation for each group had been $1,000.
West Virginia Democratic Party Chairman Belinda Biafore expressed concerns of the bill’s passage, noting a likely increase in money’s influence in politics.
“Working West Virginians aren’t the ones wanting to give this kind of money to campaigns; it’s Justice’s self-serving rich buddies,” she said.
“How do we expect West Virginians to have faith in our elections when this type of dark money will be flooding into our state by those who have no interest in helping the people of West Virginia, but only helping themselves? It’s not only about what harm this bill will cause West Virginians, but also what it will take from them.”
Justice also signed House Bill 2001, which exempts Social Security benefits from personal income taxes, and House Bill 3139, which creates a Public Employee Insurance Agency Rainy Day fund to offset future premium hikes and benefit cuts.
Justice also signed legislation lowering the severance tax on steam coal from 5 percent to 3 percent. The law will result in the state losing $60 million in revenue in three years. The governor signed the bill and two others at the Harrison County Mine in Mannington.
Among the governor’s vetoed bills was House Bill 2079; the legislation addressed problems with the 2017 medical cannabis law regarding permitting and regional distribution requirements through vertical integration. Under the current law, growers, processors and dispensaries cannot operate as one unit.
Justice explained in a memo the bill favors wholly integrated businesses.
“However, because I support the medical cannabis program for those West Virginians that need it, therefore I encourage the Legislature to address the constitutional issues above and present a bill for signature that treats all taxpayers that will be engaged in this industry in West Virginia fairly,” he added.
Justice on Tuesday signed House Bill 2538, creating accounts for collecting fees related to the sale of marijuana as well as allowing bidding for financial institutions to provide banking services for the program.
Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, sponsored House Bill 2079. He said Wednesday the legislation allowed investments in the cannabis industry to be treated the same as other businesses in regards to taxes.
“The Governor’s veto of this legislation effectively means suffering people will not have access to treatment and the promise of jobs, investment and additional tax revenue that would have come with the passage of the bill will not be realized for West Virginia,” he said.
Pushkin said without House Bill 2079, it is uncertain medical marijuana companies can best operate in the state.
“While I’m grateful that the Governor signed the Cannabis Banking Act, without this legislation, cannabis business accounts will remain empty, suffering people will remain untreated, and badly needed tax revenue will go unrealized,” he added.
Another vetoed measure was Senate Bill 440, which would have applied anti-hazing laws to all organizations in which college students are members.
Justice also struck down Senate Bill 522 and House Bill 3044, both of which are aimed at allocating resources and pushing transparency on road repair work.
Senate Bill 522 — nicknamed “Randy’s Dream” after Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker — established a new road repair fund. House Bill 3044, backed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers from north central West Virginia, would have asked the state Division of Highways to develop a formula for distributing funds across highway districts.