West Virginia lawmakers passed a bill establishing an economic development fund, wrapping up a special session that lasted a little more than a day.
After debate of more than an hour this morning, members of the House of Delegates passed the bill 76-6 with 18 absences. The bill had already passed the state Senate, 33-0 with one absence.
Senate Bill 2001 establishes a fund for infrastructure and economic development projects. Officials have proposed putting as much as $600 million in the fund at the end of this fiscal year.
Governor Justice had vetoed the bill a few weeks ago because of technical flaws and now has been aiming to have it fixed.
Debate in the House of Delegates focused in part on how quickly state officials should push the bill through.
To try to hold the special session to a minimum number of days, lawmakers were suspending constitutional rules requiring bills to be read on three separate days. A motion on Monday evening to suspend those rules fell short of a required threshold of four-fifths of the members present.
So delegates gathered again today at 8 a.m., starting with a long debate over whether hurrying to pass the bill would be wise.
Delegate Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, suggested it would be better to study the state’s financial support of private businesses more thoroughly during coming interim meetings “and consider it like a deliberative body is supposed to.”
“It’s not an emergency,” McGeehan said. “We don’t need to suspend the constitutional rules.”
Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, said the bill could be lost if it didn’t pass today. Lawmakers are sensitive about the perception of additional cost if special sessions run long.
“My sense is if we don’t suspend rules, the bill will not move further. We’ll adjourn sine die,” Espinosa said.
Delegate Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall, said she would support moving the bill ahead but expressed reservations. “I’m going to support suspending the rules,” she said, “but I wish we could have better communication and better process so we have the opportunity to do the job that people sent us here to do.”
Today, the motion to suspend rules and deal with the bill all at once passed 71 to 13 with 16 members absent at the time, meaning it met the required four-fifths threshold of members present.
The other debate among delegates was whether there are proper safeguards expressed in the bill to ensure the public money is used wisely in support of private companies.
Delegate Shannon Kimes, R-Wood, referred to that concern when he expressed a preference for putting the money to use for private companies.
“I prefer crony capitalism over swamp socialism every day,” he said. “I wholeheartedly support these economic development projects.”
Some delegates pointed toward definitions in the bill that are meant to spell out the conditions for using the money.
The bill refers to high impact development projects. To kick those into gear, the governor would request financing by $50 million or more. And the company would put up its own $50 million or more for a project. Then the project would have to meet a loan-per-job standard in agreement with the state.
“There are parameters,” said Delegate Tom Fast, R-Fayette, who said his mind was put at ease by hearing more about how the fund would work. “I think this is good for economic development and I would urge adoption of the motion.”
Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, voted against the bill. She expressed concern about whether the safeguards in the bill are adequate.
“I think we have a responsibility as a Legislature to very carefully vet the use of state funding,” Fleischauer said. “And we are talking about $600 million potentially.”
Lawmakers were lined up to deal with 17 bills in a special session, mostly legislation that didn’t quite reach the finish line at the end of last month’s regular session or items vetoed by the governor for technical reasons.
Legislators dealt with most of those bills on Monday.
A bill that would have exempted Bluefield State from oversight by the Higher Education Policy Commission was sent to the Senate Rules Committee, sort of a purgatory move, and the session was called to a close without further consideration.