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Lawmakers pass arts department, firefighter benefits bills in special session

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — State lawmakers quickly voted in favor of several pieces of legislation offered by the Justice administration during special session.

The legislation included measures to create a new arts department and to make increased death benefits for firefighters killed in the line of duty retroactive to Jan. 1.

Gov. Jim Justice wanted to create a new arts department after signing a bill that eliminated the Department of Education and the Arts, sending some of its duties to other state agencies.

Paul Espinosa

“The arts has a strong presence in his (the governor’s) administration. That’s what this legislation is trying to address,” said House Education Chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson.

Under the bill that passed Tuesday, the current commissioner of culture and history will become the curator of arts, culture and history. The curator will report directly to the governor.

Democrats in both houses questioned the shuffle. They asked whether it will truly result in greater efficiency, and they also wondered if the entire series of events was really to eliminate the Secretary for the Arts position that had been held by Gayle Manchin, wife of U.S. Senator Joe Manchin.

“During last session we dismantled the department and now we are reconstituting it and it makes one wonder if we just aimed at the head,” said Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha.

Mike Pushkin

Some also expressed concern about whether the state Library Commission would remain truly independent under the new structure or whether it would be subject to the desires of the new curator.

“I think maybe we should leave these folks independent, and I think maybe I’ve talked myself into voting no on this bill,” said Delegate Charlotte Lane, R-Kanawha.

In the Senate, Ron Stollings, a Democrat from Boone County, asked a similar question about the Library Commission and the Educational Broadcasting Authority. “Who sets the budget?”

That bill wound up passing the House 73-20. It passed the Senate 28-1.

It will be effective June 8.

Sen. Greg Boso

Lawmakers also passed a bill meant to deal with death benefits for firefighters killed in the line of duty.

It is meant to make greater death benefits retroactively effective to Jan. 1 to help families of Pratt volunteer firefighters who died in a crash as they were responding to a fatal accident on the West Virginia Turnpike.

Without much debate, that bill passed the House 93-0. The bill passed the Senate 29-0.

“This gives the assurance their families will be taken care of,” said Senator Greg Boso, R-Nicholas.

House Speaker Tim Armstead first urged the retroactive change in a letter to the governor shortly after the Pratt VFD crash.

Tim Armstead

“I’m thankful that the Legislature and Governor were able to come together and act quickly to ensure the families of the fallen Pratt firefighters receive the full benefits approved under Senate Bill 625,” Armstead said in a Monday statement.

“Our volunteer firefighters are vital to the safety and protection of communities across West Virginia, giving freely of themselves to help us in our times of greatest need. This bill makes sure that the families of those brave individuals who paid the ultimate sacrifice back in March receive the full benefits of Senate Bill 625.”

Governor Justice issued a call that includes 8 bills.

Several are meant to clean up some pieces of recently-passed legislation. Some others are supplemental appropriations.

The special session has been running concurrently with regularly-scheduled legislative interims.

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