By Phil Kabler, For West Virginia Press Association
Going into the final week of the 2020 regular session, two major issues were unresolved: The fate of a Senate proposal to establish an intermediate appeals court, and the House of Delegate’s initiative to reform foster care, in part by increasing reimbursement payments to foster families by a total of $16.9 million a year.
The fate of the intermediate appeals court was sealed Friday on the House floor, when the bill was defeated on a 44-56 vote. Conservative Republicans, who objected to the cost of creating a new layer of government bureaucracy, joined with the 41 House Democrats to kill the measure (SB275).
Opponents of the bill argued that the court is unnecessary at a time when state population and the state Supreme Court’s caseload are declining, and dismissed arguments from supporters that the court would make the state more attractive to business investment.
House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said the lack of an intermediate court had not deterred major corporate investment in the state, including the massive Procter & Gamble plant in the Eastern Panhandle.
Delegate Scott Cadle, R-Mason, was more blunt, stating. “This is a Chamber of Commerce bill, and we bow to the Chamber of Commerce because they send a big (campaign) check.”
The bill’s defeat on the House floor was dramatic, but not unexpected. In the previous two years, the Senate had passed similar bills, only to have them die in House Judiciary Committee without making it to the House floor.
As the intermediate court bill was going down in defeat, the Senate defied expectations and adopted the bulk of a House bill to reform the state foster care system (HB4092).
A key agreement was over funding to increase reimbursements to foster families. The Senate, which had initially proposed to increase that funding by only $4.9 million, on Friday accepted the House’s proposal for a $16.9 million funding increase.
Reform and increased funding for the foster care system – overstressed by the state’s opioid drug abuse crisis – was a key agenda item for the House this session.
“If we can’t stand up for these children, what good is it to be a Legislature?” Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, said in support of the bill.
The legislation also establishes bills of rights for foster children and foster parents. It completed final passage Saturday night.
Also, for the third straight year, the Legislature passed the budget bill on the last night of the regular session, avoiding the traditional multi-day budget session (SB125).
Passage of the $4.574 billion 2020-21 general revenue budget was a challenge, since it reduces spending by $119 million from the current state budget.
However, the pieces of the budget puzzle started to fall into place when Gov. Jim Justice provided a letter to the House speaker and Senate president on Friday revising actuarial calculations for state pension funds contributions for the year, freeing up $20.5 million for the budget.
As House Finance Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, noted, that resolved issues on how to fund the increased reimbursements in the foster care reform legislation.
“Keep in mind, much of the money he found, $16.9 million, is used for foster care,” Householder told the House. “Rest assured, it’s contained in the budget.”
Despite the overall spending cut, the 2020-21 spending plan fully funds $14 million for the state Division of Tourism for advertising and promotion, includes a nearly $20 million increase to eliminate a 1,000-person backlog for a program that provides in-home and community care for developmentally disabled persons, and provides $3.3 million increase to open a second Mountaineer Challenge Academy for at-risk teens at the former West Virginia University Tech campus in Montgomery.
The budget also adopts a Senate proposal to set aside $2 million in the governor’s civil contingency fund for a public health emergency response to a potential coronavirus pandemic in West Virginia, and restores a $1 million funding increase requested by Justice for community food banks.
“I believe we’ve got a good compromise here,” Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, told the Senate.
Budget negotiations Saturday took place behind closed doors, rather than having the bill placed in a House-Senate conference committee to work out differences – a process criticized by veteran legislator Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson.
“We need a full, free and open budget conference that the public can see,” he said, adding, “This was not openly arrived at, and we all know that.”