Business, Energy, Environment, West Virginia Legislature

House divides over energy, raw milk bills; sends Randall Reid-Smith bill to governor

MORGANTOWN – The House of Delegates held some lively debate and saw a divided vote over a couple energy-related bills and a raw milk bill on Monday.

The milk bill is HB 4911. Current law requires herd sharing – owning a share in a cow in order to legally obtain raw milk. The bill does away with that and allows anyone to buy it “as long as the containers are clearly labeled as ungraded raw milk, with the name of the seller and the date of production.”

The debate was not about the milk but about this sentence: “A person who sells raw milk shall be immune from suit and liability, for a claim for personal injury or other civil liability caused or arising out of, or relating to, an actual or alleged act, error, or omission that occurred.”

The only exception to that immunity is intentional or willful and wanton misconduct. Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, proposed a failed amendment last Friday to eliminate the immunity clauses.

Delegate JB Akers, R-Kanawha, raised the issue again on Monday, discussing the biblical principle of restitution and saying that undermines the constitutional right to trial by jury and sets a bad precedent for other businesses that might want the same protection.

Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh and an attorney, said it’s fundamental to the republic for citizens to be able to have a jury hear your grievance. “I have fought a long time to get rid of immunity.”

No other food product or produce has this type of immunity. It’s the seller’s responsibility to make sure what you’re doing is not negligent or harmful. And if the seller is immune, the costs will fall on the West Virginia taxpayer.

Some of the discussion established that the immunity clause doesn’t cover negligence – with the frequent example of shreds of glass accidentally finding their way into the milk.

Defending the bill, Delegate Amy Summers, R-Taylor, said it ends the bureaucratic trickery of herd sharing to giving everyone a choice to buy raw milk. “We’re going to give you the freedom to do that. We’ve got a freedom bill in front of us, finally.”

Lead sponsor Mike Hornby, R-Berkeley, acknowledged the risks of drinking raw milk, saying it inherently has health issues, but less than four people per year have gotten sick in last eight years.

He said 18 other states allow direct-to-consumer sales (similar to this bill), 17 allow herd sharing, 12 states allow retail raw milk sales, and three allow it to be sold as pet food.

When asked how many of those offer the same kind of broad immunity, he didn’t know.

The vote was 76-19, and it goes to the Senate. Opposition was bipartisan. Locally, all eight Republicans voted for it and three of four Democrats voted against it; one Democrat was absent.

HB 4850 deals with oil and gas personal property taxes. The issue made the news recently when it was discovered that a state Tax Department contractor miscalculated the tax valuations for oil and gas properties in eight counties, costing those counties more than $22.9 million all combined.

Tyler was hit worst, at $15.8 million. Monongalia County lost about $1.7 million.

Assessors previously assessed oil and gas wells on a class system, but the state Supreme Court ruled that method unconstitutional in 2019 and the Legislature passed a bill in 2022 to require each property to be assessed individually; the mistakes occurred in 2023.

The thrust of the bill was to eliminate from the 2022 legislation the July 1, 2025, sunset for the new method, making it permanent.

Delegate David Kelly, R-Tyler, didn’t complain about the bill as such, but about the Tax Department for allowing the errors. “Get your act together and do this right,” he said, or call on the governor to find somebody who will.

Pleasants County saw the smallest hit, at $110,277, and Delegate Trenton Barnhart, R-Pleasants, said he couldn’t vote to enshrine a problematic process. They need to get the stakeholders back together and fix it.

Finance chair Vernon Criss, R-Wood, in answer to a question, said that if they don’t lift the sunset, the eight counties could see their revenues fall to zero next year. He wants to have the Tax Department come before his committee during interims to explain how they’re going to fix the problem.

The bill heads to the Senate after a 71-25 vote. Opposition was again bipartisan and locally, again, the breakdown was 8-3.

HB 5528 aims to modify 2020 legislation that allows the state’s two regulated utilities, AEP and FirstEnergy, to each build up to 50 megawatt solar facilities totaling 200 MW for each utility.

The bill increases the maximum size to 100 MW and removes the Dec. 31, 2025, sunset. Energy vice-chair Mark Zatezalo, R- Hancock, said the sunset request came from one of the utilities (he didn’t name but meant AEP) that hasn’t started any projects and is trying to generate interest.

Delegate Buck Jennings, R-Preston, asked Zatezalo if the bill will help stabilize the electric grid. Zatezalo said the state has a total 16,000 MW capacity and the 400 MW allowed by the bill isn’t that significant. “It will not make the grid particularly strong but it certainly isn’t going to hurt it.”

Delegate Bill Ridenour, R-Jefferson, said hundreds in his county have contacted him to complain that a massive solar farm there has already overwhelmed agricultural area and there are three more larger projects in the works.

“My constituents are tired of solar being slammed down their throats; they don’t want the Green New Deal.

It goes to the Senate after a 61-36 vote. Locally, three Republicans voted against it and the other nine, of both parties, voted for it.

On a warm-fuzzier note, the House nearly unanimously passed SB 790 to elevate the title of the curator of the Department of Arts, Culture and History to cabinet secretary. The bill doesn’t name a person, but as in the Senate, praise fell on current Curator Randall Reid-Smith, who’s helmed the agency for 19 years.

Delegates praised his promotion of the state and its art, culture and history.

Criss mentioned Reid-Smith’s financial savvy in running his department. “The curator can take a buck and go further than anybody else in this government, by far.” And he returns any leftover.

Delegate Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, said, “The curator has presided over America falling back in love with our Appalachian culture and falling back in love with West Virginia.”

The vote was 94-2 – with two Republicans objecting – and it heads to the governor, who requested the bill.