Del. Gary Howell talks about several significant bills in the House of Delegates.
By Del. Gary Howell
We are nearing the halfway point in the 60-day legislative session. Individual delegates are working bills on behalf of their constituents by meeting with stakeholders and committee chairs, explaining why their specific bill is important. The main thing is how can it make West Virginia the best place to live, work and raise a family? That has been the overreaching goal of this session. Many times, we will be asked why we are working a specific bill that may seem insignificant to them. These bills are not a waste of time, because they are important to someone in the state and we work on multiple bills at once as many committees meet at the same time.
On the House floor the most significant bill of this past week was HB 2005 the “Broadband Expansion Act of 2019.” This was the culmination of several ideas to increase access to broadband across the state. I was able to contribute to those ideas with the new cell tower tax evaluation system. This bill will make it more likely that cell towers will be constructed in rural areas. They can provide both cell service and wireless internet connections.
Another bill that several people have asked for, and which is mainly designed to avoid confusion, was HB 2036, Permitting vehicles displaying disabled veterans' special registration plates to park in handicapped parking spots. Those with disabled veteran’s tags have always been able to park in handicapped parking spots, but another section of the law requires the handicapped parking permit. While both were allowed, some did not know, and this bill clears away that confusion.
Revamping the state’s foster care system has been a big priority. The drug problem existing in the country and West Virginia has elevated the need for foster families. Children have been falling through the cracks. HB 2010 seeks to improve that foster care system; some do not believe it goes far enough, some believe too far. The bill passed with bipartisan support.
Possibly the biggest bill to pass was HB 2001, which eliminates the tax on Social Security. This will help our state seniors who are on a limited income. Only one delegate spoke against and voted against the bill, that was John Doyle of Jefferson County.
The major committee Government Organization, which I chair, passed several bills. HB 2679 is a religious freedom bill allowing state-issued identification cards to be issued without photographs. This bill was introduced by Chris Phillips of Barbour County to help with the growing Amish community. The bill went on to pass the full House.
A bill that I co-sponsor will help biking and hiking opportunities to expand in Mineral County. HB 2420 creates the Mountaineer Trail Network Authority, which will operate as a non-profit without state funding in the counties of Barbour, Grant, Harrison, Marion, Mineral, Monongalia, Preston, Randolph, Taylor and Tucker. The stated purpose of the bill is to provide additional opportunities and regulatory authorization for recreational trail networks and to provide for increased access to recreational areas, including, creating a contiguous trail system that connects to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Tow Path.
As cyber security becomes a growing issue for business and government, HB 2452 was introduced. It creates the West Virginia Cybersecurity Office to help defend the states computer systems against cyber attack and data theft. This bill now moves on to the House Committee on Finance because of its initial $4.2 million fiscal note.
Our Technology & Infrastructure Committee (T & I), a minor committee, has met twice. The committee passed House Concurrent Resolution 8. It requests the Division of Highways to update the previous preliminary engineering study on the extension of WV Rt 9. The extension would be a four-lane highway from the Martinsburg area to Berkley Springs, then as a modern two-lane to connect with US 220 near Keyser. This would create a road to travel to the three Eastern Panhandle counties without having to leave the state.
HB 2359 also passed out of T & I, which allows for the issuance of a limited Commercial Drivers License for the farming community. This is a bill that I introduced and it will now move on to the Government Organization Committee.
HB 2594, which will prohibit railroads from blocking crossings on privately owned streets, also passed. This was introduced by Delegate Butler for a small community that was being blocked in for hours. It now moves on to the Judiciary Committee.
We are still waiting on a final version of SB 451, the Education Reform bill. The Senate has changed it dramatically and it will change even more when the House gets it and begins to put its stamp on it. The larger classroom size requested by school boards in southern West Virginia has already been removed. They originally asked for this to use in high schools with shrinking enrollment.
Several of you have commented on this provision. Creating additional public charter schools in the state is also a contentious issue in the bill. The oldest in the state, West Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind, is a special needs charter school that has been held up as a strong example of how they can work. Another public charter school is the West Virginia Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy in Preston County. It is specifically for troubled youth and has a strong success rate.
I want to hear from you if we need more of these public charter schools or not. When the bill is in its final form, I will weigh the specific things that you contacted me as being good or bad. This will guide my decision on if the good outweighs the bad in the final bill.
Please keep contacting me about the specifics that may or may not be in the final bill and how you feel about them.
As always if you have a question, a suggestion on making West Virginia the best place to live, work and raise a family or need help with a state agency, then you can always call me at 304-340-3192 or if you prefer e@mail me at Gary.Howell@WVHouse.gov. Make sure you leave your full name, address and phone number so I can contact you if you leave a message.