2013 Legislative Session - Victories and Opportunities
The 2013 Legislative Session and FY 2014 Budget are now in the history books. Many of the major pieces of new legislation were the focus of our research over the past year. In addition, as the session unfolded, we responded to issues d'jour as they appeared. Here's how things turned out:
FAMILY ECONOMIC SECURITY
Arguably the high point of the session for low-income families was the creation of the Senate Select Committee on Children and Poverty. The committee, chaired by House Majority Leader John Unger, met weekly and focused on ways to help West Virginia's large population of children and families in poverty. It championed the Feed to Achieve Act which was ultimately passed and aims to provide free meals for all West Virginia K-12 students regardless of income. The committee called upon WVCBP staff and used data from our report Children in Poverty: A Growing and Persistent Problem. Data from the report were included in the in the final bill.
The budget included cuts to many important programs like higher education. The governor kept his promise, however, to leave funding for child-care assistance intact and proposed $17 million to preserve this important funding. Read more about how the proposed cuts would have impacted West Virginia's low-income children and families here.
Throughout the session health care advocates awaited Governor Tomblin's decision on whether or not to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Yesterday, he officially announced that West Virginia will move forward with expanding coverage to tens of thousands of uninsured people in the state.
More good news on the health care front was SB 22 which extends Medicaid and PEIA maternity coverage to dependent daughters on their parents' passed both houses and awaits the governor's signature.
SB 359, the governor's education reform bill, was quite possibly his highest legislative priority this session. The bill, which was passed and signed by the governor last month, would give local communities more authority over their schools, including their calendars and will also expand the full-day pre-K program. Providing high-quality early childhood development was a recommendation of this WVCBP issue brief and this report as a way to help families living in poverty.
In other good news for the state's low-income families, the House of Delegates passed a resolution in support of the federal minimum wage increase from $7.25 to $9.00 an hour. Over 190,000 West Virginia workers would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage which would also boost the state's economy and create 900 jobs.
TAX & BUDGET
In an era of tax cuts, the Legislature did decide to raise revenue via HB 2754. AKA the Amazon Law, it creates an "Internet tax" requiring online retailers to charge sales tax if they have a presence in the state. Amazon has a distribution center in Huntington. The new law is expected to raise between $7 and $10 million each year. Read more about it here or in our analysis of the governor's budget.
In the session's final days and a year of budget cuts to higher education and other important programs, there was a still a push to cut coal severance taxes. The bill passed the Senate Energy Committee but did not get taken up in Senate Finance. Read more about this bill and the lop-sided priorities it represented.
Addressing prison overcrowding was one of the governor's legislative priorities from the session's start. The WVCBP provided analysis last year in Stemming the Tide: The Racial and Economic Impacts of West Virginia's Prison System which contained many recommendations for reducing prison overcrowding that were included in the bill, such as reforming technical parole violations. Best of all, passage of this legislation will likely ensure that the state doesn't spend millions building a new prison.
Fresh off an election year, some legislators thought it was time to adopt voter identification legislation. Secretary of State Natalie Tennant formed an advisory committee on the subject and we provided research on the costs to the state. Our findings showed that not only would requiring voter IDs be expensive, it would address a nonexistent problem. Almost all cases of voter fraud in West Virginia are committed by election officials, not the voters themselves. House and Senate bills requiring voter ID ended up receiving little attention.
As previously mentioned, the governor's budget called for cuts to many important programs as he called upon state agencies to trim $75 million from their budgets. Higher education had the biggest hit by far at nearly $35 million in cuts, almost half of the overall total. Public education was hit with $7 million, or nearly 10% of the total. While the Sexual Assault and Prevention program's funding was originally sliced completely, the legislature restored its funding. It also restored funding cuts to domestic violence and prevention programs. In most cases, however, there were only small differences between the governor's proposal and changes by the legislature. To see the governor's proposed cuts, read our analysis of the FY 14 budget. To see how the House and Senate bills differed, read here. To see the final product, read here.
Another bad piece of legislation that failed was the Job Impact Statements bill (SB 187). This would have required the Commerce Department to create an impact statement on legislation that could affect the state's economy. With existing concerns about the accuracy of fiscal notes, it was difficult to understand how this added task could be completed with in any sort of meaningful way and who would do the work it required.
While there was much to celebrate this session, there is more work to be done on the WV Future Fund. Legislation to set aside severance tax revenue from the gas industry funds for when the industry boom is over started to move in the Senate but did not make it to the floor for a vote.
Even though it had been studied during interims and passed out of House Judiciary, House Finance decided not to advance worksharing. Worksharing is a program that already exists in 24 other states and the District of Columbia and gives employers the flexibility to use partial unemployment benefits to keep employees during economic downturns - a win-win scenario for both businesses and their workers.
This past legislative session was a mixed bag of successes and continuing opportunities and we will continue to focus on issues important to low- and middle-income West Virginians as the legislature begins its interim season.