CHARLESTON — As the 2020 regular legislative session completed its first full week, it seemed to be settling in to the slow, deliberate pace of an election-year session, with little in the way of high drama or major initiatives.
It’s a far cry from the first 10 days of the 2019 session, as controversy was already growing over talk of a sweeping omnibus bill for public education reform, one that would result in the second statewide teachers’ walkout in as many years, while work progressed on legislation to allow many West Virginians to attend community and technical colleges tuition-free.
This year, House and Senate Finance committee budget hearings proved to be the most newsworthy events of week two of the 2020 session, with committees learning, among other things, that state Highways funding is set to drop in the 2020-21 state budget.
Gov. Jim Justice’s proposed 2020-21 state budget reduces state Division of Highways funding by $145 million, to $1.31 billion – primarily because it does not repeat last year’s $100 million one-time transfer of budget surplus for secondary road repairs, Transportation Secretary Byrd White told the House Finance Committee.
Complaints about crumbling and poorly maintained secondary roads despite hundreds of millions of dollars of new construction underway as part of Justice’s Roads to Prosperity program, led the governor in 2019 to shift more money to repair those roads.
That included $100 million of 2019-20 budget surplus, a one-time appropriation that cannot be repeated currently, as the state is running a $33 million budget deficit.
Another $45 million that Justice committed to secondary roads repair in 2019 also will not be available, since it is committed to pay debt service on a second round of Roads to Prosperity bonds that the state sold in December.
Deputy Highways Commissioner Jimmy Wriston said the one-time funds were put to good use, telling delegates that about $34 million of that funding to buy much-needed new heavy equipment, stating, “I can’t even begin to exaggerate the difference that has made.”
However, stressing the enormous challenge to maintain nearly 39,000 miles of state roads, Wriston said he would need another $80 million a year for four years for the state to buy enough equipment to adequately maintain all roads.
“We’ll work with what we have,” he said.
Meanwhile, Adam Holley, outgoing acting commissioner of the Division of Motor Vehicles, said the state stands to lose $58 million a year in federal highways funding if it keeps a 2019 law barring DUI arrests on private property on the books.
Passed during the 2019 regular session in response to a 2016 state Supreme Court ruling making it illegal to drive drunk “anywhere in this state,” including private roads and property, lead sponsor Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, described the legislation as the “right to act stupid on your own property.”
Holley said the permissive language could result in the state facing a withholding of a total of 14 percent of the state’s federal highways funding appropriation.
Other highlights of the second week of the session:
• State Supreme Court Chief Justice Tim Armstead was noncommittal on the issue of whether the state should create an intermediate appeals court.
At the high court’s budget presentation, he told the House Finance Committee, “We would like to have input on how that can best be accomplished, if the Legislature proceeds with that.”
That’s a notable change from 2016, when in his last year as speaker of the House of Delegates, Armstead had put creation of an intermediate appeals court “at the top of our list” for passage.
However, budget shortfalls that legislative session ultimately put consideration of the new court – with annual cost estimates ranging from $4 million to more than $11 million – on the back burner for another year.
Armstead said the Supreme Court’s $135.5 million 2020-21 budget request is up $11.1 million from the current budget, primarily because in 2019, the court used $10 million of carryover funds to balance its budget, freeing up that amount of money for general revenue. He stressed that the budget covers costs for operating all courts in the state, from the Supreme Court, to circuit courts, to Family Courts, to county magistrate courts.
• The House of Delegates passed 93-5 and sent to the Senate a bill that would require abortion providers to provide medical care in the unlikely event of a live-birth abortion (HB4007).
Some proponents of the bill conceded it is more about sending a political message of opposition to abortion than it is about addressing an actual problem. Opponents argued that the bill’s only practical purpose is to provide fodder for attack ads for those who vote against it.