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Special session continues as lawmakers advance bills

CHARLESTON — State lawmakers made progress on a long special session agenda Monday but will need at least today to finish the bills on Gov. Jim Justice’s agenda.

A six-bill package that would make changes in the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation is on its way to passage. One bill would provide a $25 million pay enhancement for correctional officers.

Delegate David Kelly, R-Tyler, said much of the money goes into the first three years a correctional officer is employed, where statistics show the most turnover occurs. The bill also creates a salary schedule that would increase pay through a step process at $225 more each year.

Kelly said the bills are an initial comprehensive approach to dealing with several issues in corrections.

“We’ve been able to put something together that I’m hopeful will move the needle,” Kelly said on MetroNews “Talkline” Monday. “It’s not the end-all. It’s not going to fix everything but we have to do this and I call it foundational.”

There’s also a measure that would give non-uniformed corrections employees a one-time $2,300 retention pay. The House Finance Committee increased the retention bonus to two payments of nearly $2,300. The second payment will come six months after the first. The proposal came from Del. Michael Hite, R-Berkeley. The double retention pay will now cost the state $5.8 million.

Another bill would allow corrections to reject coverage of an inmate’s elective medical procedure. Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, argued in Monday’s House Judiciary Committee meeting the measure is unnecessary because there are already reviews of procedures done by the state’s jail system health care contractor.

“I don’t know where this bill is coming from. I don’t know the genesis of this but from talking to experts I understand this is a non-issue; it’s not required,” Hansen said.

State Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation Commissioner William Marshall told members of the Senate Finance Committee the package is just the first of several steps that they hope to take in the coming months.

“Money alone is not going to fix our problem, we have to make the job better,” Marshall said. “The job is tough. It’s one of the toughest in state government. But if we fix things and do things that drive those officers crazy every day and then give them some money we might be on to something and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Justice took to social media with a four-minute video Monday afternoon to promote the work of the special session on corrections and other bills.

“Think about the need in our state for correctional officers — we need to do something about it — don’t we,” Justice said.

Rainy Day change rejected

The House Finance Committee took several hours Monday to consider a few dozen bills that allocate money from last fiscal year’s revenue collection surplus to a number of projects. The legislature came into session with about $658 million available. The governor’s bills spend most of it.

The committee rejected Justice’s bill that would change how much surplus money is required to go into the state’s Rainy Day fund. House Finance Committee Vice Chairman John Hardy said it would be a mistake to reduce the money going into the state’s savings account.

“I think that it’s this committee’s obligation to continue to fund the Rainy Day fund in the order that it should be funded and that we’ve made the guarantee to our taxpayers to keep that fund where we want it,” Hardy said.

The committee’s decision means there’s $144 million less in surplus revenue to allocate in this special session. The Senate has passed the governor’s bill so the original measure remains alive.

VFD funding

Lawmakers are also working on a $12 million funding bill for volunteer fire departments. West Virginia State Fire Chiefs’ Association President Randy James told members of the House Judiciary Committee Monday funding is sorely needed for things like firefighting equipment.

“A basic ladder truck, just basic, we just got a bid for $1.05 million, that’s what the basic ladder truck costs now and an engine is probably in the $600,000 range,” James said.

The governor’s bill is less than what Senate Finance Committee Chairman Eric Tarr and others wanted. Tarr said lawmakers were close to an agreement of bringing back a insurance premium tax that would provide a permanent funding source for VFDs and critical EMS crews. Tarr said during an appearance on MetroNews “Talkline” Monday the money residents save with low insurance rates because of fire protection would more than cover what they would pay in the premium increase.

“If we don’t get it fixed where our emergencies are covered as fast and as competent as we can possibly get it, what’s going to happen is our insurance rates are going to go up,” Tarr said. “The governor just kicked the can a little further down the road for those rates going up.”

MU Cyber Security/Pierpont Hangar

The House Finance Committee sent to the floor at $45 million allocation for Marshall University’s new cyber security center. The Senate has already passed the bill. Tarr lauded the project on “Talkline” Monday.

“Marshall is primed to be a premier educational center for cyber security in the country, if not the world,” Tarr said.

The House Finance Committee had a long debate before approving a $25 million allocation to Pierpont Community and Technical College for a new aviation maintenance hangar. Several delegates criticized the project for trying to take quick advantage of revenue surplus funds without letting the legislature know much about the project.

Del. Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, voted with the majority in favor of the bill but said, “I’m going to speak in favor of this but I’m going to tell you that I don’t like what the process has been through this whole special session with a lot of the bills we have. This just needs to stop. We really need to fully vet these things,” Ellington said.

The House and Senate will have floor sessions again today.

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