Legislators discuss pros and cons of 2018 session

MORGANTOWN — Local legislators shared the pros and cons of the 2018 session during a Tuesday afternoon meeting put on by the Morgantown Area Chamber of Commerce and the Morgantown Board of Realtors.

Delegates and senators fielded some questions about specific topics and offered thoughts on bills – passed and failed – that were important to them.

Audience turnout was light — only 15 people showed up to hear eight legislators speak.

On the topic of the state workforce and spending money to combat the opioid crisis, Delegate Joe Statler, R-Monongalia, “We can’t underfund that. We’re going to have to get us moving again.”

Getting people gainfully employed, sound roads and infrastructure, and getting people educated will play roles in solving the problem, he said.

Delegate Amy Summers, R-Taylor and House Health Committee vice-chair, talked about the legislature’s work in addressing the supply side of the problem through the Opioid Reduction Act, SB 273, which, among other things, limits the number of days providers can prescribe opioids.

Another question concerned passage of the governor’s Roads to Prosperity road bonds and holding the Division of Highways accountable for completing projects across the state.

Summers said people remain concerned about maintaining the roads we have and getting potholes filled.

Several other legislators expanded on that, noting that the asphalt plants are just now opening after an extended period of cold weather, and that the bond money isn’t meant to fix secondary roads; what it will do is free up Road Fund money that would have gone to major projects for secondary road repairs.

Delegate John Williams, D-Monongalia, commented on the reputation of the DOH as the projects move forward. “I think it’s vital that we have the DOH follow through on the projects that they said they would be doing.” He and other local legislators met with the DOH to make sure it does just that.

“If they don’t follow through on this, then this is the end of public trust in the DOH,” he said.

Summers pointed out that the state auditor’s office has set up a website, checkbook.gov, for residents to check on and track DOH road bond spending.

The microphone went around the table for legislators to comment on topics important to them.

Sen. Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, said that second only to roads for his constituents, is lack of broadband access. He lives 2.5 miles outside of Kingwood and has no service, though the official broadband maps say he does. Two issues are impeding progress: incumbent providers blocking out rivals who want to provide service, and inaccurate maps.

Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, celebrated the death of a bill: SB 552, which would have made Pierpont Community and Technical College a division of Fairmont State. Although he didn’t mention it, that bill was so locally unpopular, a Brooke County senator was the sole sponsor.

He also celebrated Senate passage (it died in the House) of SCR 32, recognizing the importance of industrial hemp. Under federal law, hemp can’t be transported across state lines and the resolution works toward a solution to that. He’s working on a bill to get 16 states on board once Congress passes appropriate legislation.

“It’s an exciting time for us if we can get this going,” he said, “because what most folks don’t realize is hemp’s a billion dollar industry.”

Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, mentioned legislation that has failed to pass, to prevent discrimination in work and housing based on sexual orientation. “We’re never going to be able to recruit even an outpost of Facebook or Google or any other big 500 companies unless we mandate that discrimination is not permitted in West Virginia.”

A bill has passed the Senate several times but always died in the House. “If we want to be a little bit more modern we’re going to have to move forward on that topic.”

Sen. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, championed SB 360, which prevents gas developers form deducting post-productions costs from certain types of leases. It was a milestone victory for mineral owners.

But, Clements noted, “It created such a rumble in the gas industry that there’s a federal lawsuit now trying to overturn it.” The case is EQT v Austin Caperton (current secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection) and was filed April 12 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia.

He also championed and sponsored SB 369, to consolidate and make more efficient the operations of the state’s jails and prisons. The version that passed into law came out of the House, HB 4338.

“This is a big thing which will save the counties millions and millions of dollars.”

Delegate Cindy Frich, R-Monongalia, joined the House Health Committee this session and has served two sessions on the new Substance Abuse Prevention Committee. She also sits on Finance.

“I’m very pleased with the money I was able to direct to drug treatment and the Office of Drug Control Policy. That’s the bill that I’m most proud of and it certainly needed funding.” She was lead sponsor in 2017 of the bill that created the office.

A bill she introduced late in that session and failed, but that she will introduce again, is one to give the attorney general prosecutorial powers for drug crimes. Other state attorneys general have that power, she said. “Maybe that’s the missing link. Maybe that’s why West Virginia’s having such a terrible time.”

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