Senator Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier

It’s done. The 2021 legislative session ended at midnight at April 10. Here’s a quick rundown of where several major issues landed.

PERSONAL INCOME TAX. The proposal to raise the sales tax to at least 8 percent and reduce the income tax failed in the House. Gov. Justice pledged to go on the road, taking his case directly to the people as to why it’s a good plan. The supermajorities pledged to continue talking about options. I imagine there will be another effort to eliminate it in a special session this fall.

BEST BILL? Several folks asked me what the best thing passed this year was? That’s easy for me — the veteran’s nursing home in Beckley! We finally got it done. With the state funds in place, we gain access to federal funds. Now, our veterans will be able to stay in southern West Virginia to receive the care they earned.

BROADBAND. Before the session, the supermajorities declared that 2021 would be the year of broadband. They pledged $1 billion over the next 10 years. When it was said and done this year, we passed one broadband bill and put no money in the budget for it. The bill, as I wrote last week, does some good things with consumer protections and mapping. But the best thing it did, requiring “open access” on fiber lines built with public dollars, was cut out at the last minute. Why? Because the companies who’ve had a monopoly over broadband in West Virginia for years lobbied the supermajorities to remove it, since it would have broken their monopoly. They are a powerful lobby we must break through if we are ever going to build a real broadband network.

50/50 CUSTODY. One of the session’s most contentious bills was HB2363. As originally introduced, it required a presumption of 50/50 custody in all family court cases and reopened all past family court cases for new custody arrangements. The Senate Judiciary Committee removed both of those provisions. Instead, they passed a bill which reinforces that all custody cases should be decided based on what’s in the best interest of the child and that shared parenting is beneficial to children if circumstances allow it. The final bill did pass both houses just before midnight.

REMOTE WORKERS. In what I predict will be the only bill passed this session to recruit new people to West Virginia, the remote worker program is in motion. Lewisburg is one of three initial pilot cities for the program. Funded privately by West Virginia native Brad Smith, the program pays people $12,000 cash and grants them $8,000 worth of outdoor recreational fees to move here and work remotely. While some criticize the program, population loss is a root problem for us. Until we have more people here, we will never get ahead.

ELECTION REFORM. A controversial election reform bill which I wrote about some six weeks ago died in the House. It would have, among other things, ended voter registration via the DMV, removed the final Saturday of early voting, and purged voter rolls every two years. I opposed the bill for those reasons, and House leadership chose to let it die for those reasons.

BUDGET. On the final night, we did pass a budget. Remember how I wrote a few weeks ago that the numbers just didn’t add up? That’s still the case. Consider these facts. One, we’ve had a good financial year in West Virginia. We will end up with a surplus approaching $300 million. Two, the budget we passed cut all higher education institutions including WVSOM, WVU and Marshall. Three, the budget contains $72 million in unappropriated funds. Why would we cut one of our best investments — higher education — when we have a surplus and unappropriated funds? It’s kind of like letting your savings sit in a no-interest bank account; it just doesn’t get you anything.

TELL IT LIKE IT IS. Tensions ran very high this year. As a lady at the gas station said to me this week, “It beats all I ever saw the way they came after you this year.” It’s the oldest political trick in the book. When the message isn’t good for you, attack the messenger. No worries, friends. I’ll keep telling it like it is, fighting the good fight.

That’s the view from the back pew, where it is my privilege to serve you!

Senator Stephen Baldwin is the Minority Leader and a local pastor. Reach him at 304-357-7959 or Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram @BaldwinForWV.

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