Education, Energy, Environment, Latest News, West Virginia Legislature

Senate OKs bill to end 1-cent pop tax for WVU medical school; and one for people who lose jobs and unemployment benefits for refusing vaccine

MORGANTOWN – The Senate approved a bill on Thursday to end the 1-cent pop tax that provides funds to the WVU medical school and replace it with a different source to send money to all three medical schools.

It also passed one to allow employees who lose their job for refusing a vaccine to collect unemployment benefits.

SB 533 would end the 1-cent pop tax effective Jan. 1, 2024. This tax provides about $14 million for the WVU medical school.

Instead, the bill will draw funds from the insurance premium and send $14 million to WVU, $5.5 million to Marshall’s medical school and $3.9 million to the School of Osteopathic Medicine. Money would be allocated quarterly.

Any pop tax money collected between the bill’s effective date and the expiration of the tax would be placed in general revenue. Nothing in the bill precludes additional state appropriations to the schools.

Judiciary chair Charles Trump, R-Morgan called the bill “a pretty extraordinary achievement,” referring to years of wrangling over ways to end the tax without hurting WVU. “Many recognized singling out soda for a special tax has been unfair.”

The bill passed 34-0 and goes to the House.

Contacted for comment after the vote, Rob Alsop, WVU vice president for Strategic Initiatives, said, “We appreciate the work of legislators on the proposed bill, which secures funding for the university’s academic medical program through another source of revenue. Under this proposal, WVU would receive $14 million annually, which is in line with current funding. Moreover, this new source is anticipated to provide a dedicated and consistent revenue stream for our academic programs.”

SB 576 would ensure an employee who is denied a religious or medical exemption for an employer’s vaccine mandate and quits the job remains eligible for unemployment insurance.

Lead sponsor Sen. Mark Maynard, R-Wayne, said they heard testimony of people with religious objections to the COVID vaccine who lost their job and were denied unemployment.

Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, F-Greenbrier, supported the bill. He said he thought he was going to vote no, but as he read it, he changed his mind. “I don’t think this bill is about COVID. This bill is about workers’ rights.”

It passed 29-5. Locally, Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, voted no; all others voted yes.

Other Senate action

SB 550 establishes a new higher education funding formula. It is the result of a yearlong project undertaken by the Higher Education Policy Commission, university and college presidents, legislators and other parties. The bill outlines and gives the HEPC and the Council for Community and Technical College Education rule-making authority to develop the details.

The formula is performance based, focused on student success and institutional goal measures, with productivity incentives. The bill gives latitude for the HEPC and CCTCE to revise the metrics over time.

It passed pass 28-6. All local senators voted for it.

HB 4074 is Meghan’s Law — to train public school personnel and students regarding self-harm and eating disorder signs, prevention and treatment.

Education chair Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, read a statement from the bill’s lead sponsor – Wayne Clark, R-Jefferson – about his daughter’s near-fatal struggle with an eating disorder that prompted him to sponsor the bill. It echoed his prior speech on the House floor.

Supporting the bill, Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, said, “Teen suicide and self-harm is so pervasive in our country and our state that we need to move forward with legislation like this.”

Sen. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, recalled how he worked on a similar bill regarding training in signs of teen suicide, based on a family’s experience. “All the signs were there but nobody knew how to recognized them.”

Sen. Owens Brown, D-Ohio, feared that the bill might subject school personnel to legal liability for failing to identify a student who needed help. His was the sole no vote; it passed 33-1 and returns to the House for amendment concurrence,

HB 3276 permits WVU to create a Parkinson’s disease registry. It passed 34-0 and returns to the House for amendment concurrence.

House action

The House passed HB 4098, to direct the Department of Environmental Protection to develop a geothermal energy permitting system. It specifies that geothermal energy is not a water or mineral resource and belongs to the surface owner.

Judiciary chair Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, said the bill arose from a WVU project and is designed to address concerns about public safety should development of this form of energy move forward.

It passed 96-2 and goes to the Senate. All local delegates voted for it.

HB 4007, a House plan to lower the state’s personal income tax by 10% – with a SAFER Fund created to accept a portion of future revenue surpluses for future tax cuts – as on second reading for amendments on Thursday.

Delegates rejected three proposed amendments. One came from Delegate Mick Bates, R-Raleigh, to make the cuts effective for tax year 2021. He wanted people to get tax relief faster than the bill’s timeline. It failed 37-59 but Bates said he will still support the bill.

Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, described one to cut the income tax by 14% for all wage levels up to $100,000, and to keep the tax as is for all income above that level. A family making $150,000 would see the 10% cut for the first $100,000 and pay the higher rate on the rest. It failed 22-73.

The final amendment was described by Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson. In place of a tax cut, it created a standard deduction of $7,000 for all income levels. It failed 21-74.

HB 4007 is on third reading for passage on Friday.

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