The West Virginia Legislature held its October interims meetings and a special session called by the Governor last week.

By Del. Gary Howell
The West Virginia Legislature held its October interims meetings and a special session called by the Governor last week.
In addition to the interim meetings and the special session, I also hosted meetings with state officials about projects back here in Mineral County.  
    The first interim meeting on which I serve was the Joint Committee on Government Accountability Transparency and Efficiency. The meeting focused on a discussion regarding transparency and efficiency of the Roads to Prosperity Amendment dollars.  
State Auditor JB McCuskey gave a presentation on the state website that will allow the public to track the money from the recently passed road bond.  According to the auditor, having the eyes of all West Virginia looking at the spending will make it easier to prevent waste, fraud and abuse.  
West Virginia Secretary of Transportation Tom Smith also discussed how they expect to spend the money that the road bond will generate and how it will free up money that was going to new highway construction and divert it to road maintenance.   
Secretary of Revenue Dave Hardy and his deputy secretary, Alan Prunty, were both present and gave presentations on how they expect the bonds to be issued and how the revenue from taxes are having an impact. The takeaway from the hearings are that the legislature will be looking closely in to the spending.  Like State Auditor McCuskey, we believe that transparency will be key to making sure the taxpayers’ interest is protected.
    The Joint Committee on Government Organization, which I serve as the chair for the House of Delegates, also met.  We first heard a presentation from the West Virginia Real Estate Appraiser Licensing and Certification Board regarding compliance with the August 2017 Performance Audit recommendations. The audit found that the board was breaking the law in several circumstances. The board brought their Standards Committee in line with the requirements of the state code and hired a new executive director.  
The changes were made quickly after the August meeting after a grilling by the committee.  The committee and I have no tolerance for bureaucrats that waste taxpayer money and believe they can operate outside the law.  We also received a regulatory performance update of the 2015 Agency Review regarding the General Services Division.  The issue of the state owning too many buildings and not having enough money for maintenance continues. The division’s debt-to-revenue ratio is extremely high and cannot easily be corrected for 10 to 15 years.  Pre-session policy discussions revolve around devising ways to make sure that the state doesn’t buy buildings in need of massive repair, and does a cost benefit analysis prior to purchase.  
One of the highlights of the Government Organization meeting was a presentation from Commissioner Chelsea Ruby, the new head of the Division of Tourism. I was genuinely impressed with the new direction she has taken the Division of Tourism.  A $50 investment in encouraging the use of the hashtag “#AlmostHeaven” generated approximately $15 million in free advertising for the state, even getting the hashtag into the top 10 trending list on Twitter.  
They simply request that everyone take a picture of something interesting in our beautiful state, and use the hashtag #AlmostHeaven to your social media post. The hashtag has generated a significant increase in inquiries to the state’s website and tourism phone lines, which has, in turn, led to more bookings in our hotels and state parks.  
I am scheduling a meeting with Commissioner Ruby at the next interims to discuss ideas on increasing tourism to the state and specifically Mineral County. I would like to hear your ideas. Please let me know anything you would like me to bring up.
    The special session saw six bills pass the full legislature - three originating in the House of Delegates and three in the Senate.
The first House Bill was SB 201, exempting military retirement income from personal income tax. Prior to 1986, military retirement income was exempt and this bill put it back the way it used to be. This will begin to bring many military retirees back to the state, bringing in many needed skill sets to help grow the state’s economy, and it is the state’s way of saying thank you to those who have protected our freedom.  
A bill dealing with tax credits for rehabilitation of historic buildings and structures, HB 203, also passed. This is something that has been successful in other states at both repurposing historic building and creating jobs.
I had attended a Southern Legislative Conference presentation earlier in the year by Lolly Rash, director of the Mississippi Heritage Trust, on how historic tax credits have a positive impact, so I was familiar with how it will work.  It is important to note that tax credits are not a subsidy, but simply cutting the taxes will help with the construction and renovation costs.  
Other states have found that new taxes paid by the building once in use far offset the revenue lost through the tax credits, and they create many jobs. The bill also contains a section that requires the owner to be current on their taxes to qualify for the tax credits.  The bill passed the House 91 to 3.  The final House bill was an update to the West Virginia Jobs Act, this requires that 75 percent of the work force on state-funded jobs be from the West Virginia labor market.  The tagline is West Virginia jobs for West Virginia workers, and this was fulfilling the Governor’s promise that the road bond would create jobs in the state.  
The first of the three Senate bills was SB 2002. The short title, “Allowing certain tax information be shared with designated DOH employees,” is a bit vague, but the bill will allow the Division of Highways to ask the Tax Department if a company bidding on a state roads project is current on their taxes in the state before they can accept their bid.  
We also passed SB 2003, which will streamline hiring in the Division of Highways. The current system is cumbersome and has resulted in over 500 unfilled jobs in the state. This has made it difficult to conduct highway maintenance across the state.  
The final bill, SB 2005, was a correction to the state court of claims bill from last session and authorized payment of a contract for security services that the state was sued over for non-payment.  
As always, I work for you, so if you have any questions, help with a state agency or just and idea that you think would make the state better please let me know.  My contact is Gary.Howell@WVHouse.gov and my phone is 304-340-3192.