CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The House of Delegates last week began work on comprehensive legislation to help fix two areas of critical need in the state: lack of adequate broadband internet access, and the crisis situation in the state's foster care system.

THE WEEK IN THE HOUSE OF DELEGATES

For the week ending Jan. 18, 2019

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The House of Delegates last week began work on comprehensive legislation to help fix two areas of critical need in the state: lack of adequate broadband internet access, and the crisis situation in the state’s foster care system.

The House Committee on Senior, Children and Family Issues on Thursday gave initial approval to a bill designed to address the serious needs in the state’s foster care system, which has been pushed to a crisis level due to the ongoing drug epidemic.

House Bill 2010 would significantly restructure the management and function of the state’s foster care system, which is struggling to serve nearly 7,000 children.

“We have a state of emergency in our foster care system,” said Assistant Majority Leader Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette. “Our children are falling through the cracks and getting lost in an overregulated bureaucracy. For the sake of the kids, we must act now to put their best interests first and give them the care they deserve.”

The bill makes several reforms designed to make the system operate more efficiently while also protecting and promoting the child’s welfare. One key reform would be to shift the health care of the foster population to a managed care system, which would better ensure children receive the full continuum of health care services.

Delegate Kessinger, who is lead sponsor of the bill, said many foster care children currently don’t receive adequate health care because their records are lost, misplaced or someone loses track of what medical services they’ve had as they transition between homes. She said the hope is a managed care system would provide more continuity in the child’s health care.

The bill also contains reforms designed to make regulation of foster care families easier, with hopes it will make agencies regulating the system more efficient and encourage more adults to become foster parents.

“West Virginians are loving, caring people, but unfortunately many adults don’t choose to become foster parents because they’re discouraged by the number of hoops they have to jump through or the amount of red tape,” Delegate Kessinger said. “We want to eliminate as many frustrations as we can so as many children as possible can get into the loving, caring families they deserve.”

The reforms include extending re-certification of foster families from an annual to a three-year cycle, like most surrounding states. Delegate Kessinger said that while state safety inspections would continue taking place in the foster home at least once a year, extending the certification to a three-year cycle would reduce the amount of paperwork that has caused delays and frustrations in the system.

Also, the Department of Health and Human Resources would be required to change its rules regulating foster children in a way that would allow parents to treat foster children the same as they would treat their natural children. This would ensure foster children are able to travel and participate in the same activities that other siblings in the family can enjoy.

The bill is currently awaiting further consideration by the House Health and Judiciary committees before it will move to the full House for a vote.

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Meanwhile, delegates on Wednesday began their initial review of House Bill 2005, the Broadband Expansion Act of 2019. The bill builds upon earlier legislation passed in 2017 and 2018 to help promote the development and expansion of broadband internet and wireless networks across the state.

“Broadband infrastructure is as vital and transformative to our economy today as the interstate highway system was in the 20th century,” said House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay. “Creating an adequate broadband system in our state is essential to provide quality education and health care systems and a vibrant economy.”

The bill features several reforms designed to reduce capital costs for building out a broadband network, including allowing wireless providers to use existing rights-of-way and utility poles to place next generation wireless and broadband network equipment throughout the state.

It also changes how newly installed broadband equipment is valued for property tax purposes, giving carriers an incentive to invest more in infrastructure across the state.

“For too long, West Virginia has fallen behind the rest of our nation in access to the greatest library in human history – the internet,” said Delegate Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, the lead sponsor of the bill. “This bill positions West Virginia better than ever before to connect our residents, students and businesses to the entire world.”

Delegate Linville said AT&T has already committed to investing $50 million in the latest wireless internet technology in the state should the bill pass, and said that could lead other wireless carriers to do the same.

“Together, and with every interested party involved, we are working to unleash the entrepreneurial spirit and further the imagination,” Delegate Linville said. “The creativity of our citizens is limitless. In bipartisan fashion, we will work together to give West Virginians the access they deserve and make this an even better place to live, work, and raise a family.”

The bill unanimously passed out of the House Committee on Technology and Infrastructure on Wednesday; the House Judiciary Committee approved the bill on Friday. The bill will now move to the full House for a debate and vote next week.