House passes community college bill with no discussion

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The House of Delegates quickly passed the last-dollar-in community college bill on Wednesday but engaged in some long debates over amendments to some less prominent bills.

And in the Senate, members adopted the Finance Committee changes to the bill eliminating the tax on Social Security benefits.

The last-dollar-in bill is SB 1. Proposed amendments underwent extensive debate on Tuesday but delegates were largely in agreement on the bill as a whole on Wednesday.

SB 1 has two major parts. The first establishes Advanced Career Education – ACE – programs in which public schools and post-secondary schools form partnerships to set up education paths for students to obtain associate degrees or advanced job certifications.

The second part is the WV Invests Grants portion. Under this, the Department of Commerce will develop a hierarchy of high-demand skilled professions and workforce needs with shortages.

Students who pursue associate degrees or career certificates in programs that satisfy those workforce needs at a community or technical college or a public four-year school can apply for state grants to supplement any federal aid and other assistance they receive.

It passed 85-13 and returns to the Senate for amendment concurrence.

— SB 285 SB 285 establishes the conditions allowing the sale of homemade food items – excluding meat and poultry – for sale to consumers at farmers markets. It exempts the items from licensing, permitting, inspection, packaging, and labeling laws. It passed 93-5 and returns to the Senate for amendment concurrence.

— SB 675 requires the Department of Environmental Protection to create an Adopt-A-Stream program in which volunteers can adopt a stream for a year and commit to doing one stream cleanup during that year. It passed 99-0 and goes to the governor.

Amended bills

Gary Howell

— SB 4, the bill to make the Home Rule Pilot Program permanent, was on second reading with a number of amendments up for consideration. Members agreed to push consideration of those to third reading on Thursday; with one more proposed amendment to come, jointly drafted by Government Organization chair Gary Howell, R-Mineral, and Delegate Rodney Pyles, D-Monongalia.

— SB 233 as it came from the Senate proposed to raise the age cap for someone seeking to apply to be a sheriff’s deputy from the current 45 to 50. A Government Organization amendment proposed to raise that cap to 65.

Ray Hollen

That prompted Delegate Ray Hollen, R-Wirt and a retired state trooper, to point out the unlikelihood many 65-year-olds could endure or pass the training, or serve for another 20 years in order to collect a pension. “I just believe there was no thought put into this.”

Delegate Tom Bibby, R-Berkeley, countered, “We’re a lot more physically fit. … We’re just a healthier society.”

Geoff Foster

And Delegate Geoff Foster, R-Putnam, said it’s inappropriate to discriminate based on age if the applicant can qualify. People age 65 and 70 are doing triathlons these days.

The amendment passed 61-36 and the bill is on third reading for passage.

— SB 317 allows three or more adjacent counties to form a multicounty mountain biking trail network authority. Members approved a Government Organization amendment that attaches to the bill HB 2420, which specifically creates the Mountaineer Trail Network Recreation Authority serving Barbour, Grant, Harrison, Marion, Mineral, Monongalia, Preston, Randolph, Taylor and Tucker counties.

— SB 318 proposes to transfer the Medicaid Fraud Unit from the Department of Health and Human Resources to the attorney general’s office. Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, proposed an amendment to guarantee that the fraud unit employees transferred to the AG’s office would retain their Civil Service protections, including seniority and annual and sick leave.

Barbara Fleischauer

Fleischauer said she feared that the employees could be fired upon transfer and replaced with political appointees. “I’m concerned this is a power grab.”

Opponents pointed out two apparent flaws with the amendment. One, other parts of code say the AG’s staff is at-will, not Civil Service, so the amendment would conflict with code. The other, said Judiciary chair John Shott, R-Mercer, is that it might constitute a legislative encroachment on a constitutional officer’s prerogatives and violate separation of powers.

A number of delegates chimed in on both sides, and the amendment ultimately failed 40-58.

Senate action

— HB 2001 is the bill to eliminate the income tax on Social Security benefits. Members approved the Finance Committee amendment to the bill, which phases out the tax in three years. For tax year 2020, 35 percent of the income will be tax exempt; for 2021, 65 percent; for 2022, 100 percent.

There’s an income cap for the deductions: for a married couple filing jointly, $100,000; for a single filer or a couple filing singly, $50,000.

The amendment also wraps I SB 472, which exempts military retiree pay.

— HB is 3144 North Central Appalachian Coal Severance Tax Rebate Act. It allows a coal company to obtain a severance tax rebate of 35 percent of the cost of new machinery or equipment used to sever coal. Members approved a Finance amendment to include real property purchased and used for severing coal.

As the bill says, “The rebate amount is limited to 80 percent of the state portion of the severance taxes attributable to the additional coal produced as a result of the new machinery and equipment.”

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