image description

Charleston Report

Gary Howell

Capitol Office:
Room 151R, Building 1
State Capitol Complex
Charleston, WV 25305
Capitol Phone: (304) 340-3191

District:
P.O. Box 39
Keyser, WV 26726
District Phone: (304) 790-9022

Email:
Gary.Howell@wvhouse.gov

February 24th 2024

This week, all first-reference committees were required to complete their tasks on house bills as we approach crossover day. This timeline allows the second-reference committee ample time to deliberate on the bill before advancing it to the floor. It's required that each bill undergo presentation on three distinct days on the House floor prior to a full House vote. Crossover day, scheduled for Wednesday the 28th, serves as the final opportunity for a House bill to transition to the Senate and for a Senate bill to move to the House.

            The first bill of note I would like to highlight this week is Committee Substitute for HB 5017, which will create reciprocity between counties for mobile food establishments, aka food trucks.  Being mobile, they create a unique issue over traditional restaurants. This bill, should it become law, would effectively create a statewide license. 

            A notable infrastructure naming resolution, of particular significance for Mineral County, is HCR 7, titled the "U.S. Navy Radarman 3rd Class Craig W. Haines Memorial Bridge." This resolution designates the Russeldale Bridge, spanning CR 13 over Patterson Creek south of Burlington, as the "U.S. Navy Radarman 3rd Class Craig W. Haines Memorial Bridge." Craig W. Haines, born on August 9, 1946, was a resident of Burlington. On February 17, 1970, he was declared a casualty of the Vietnam War while serving in Kien Giang Province, South Vietnam, aboard Patrol Craft Fast 22, a U.S. Navy Swift Boat.

            Probably the most debated bill of the week on the House floor was HB 4299.  Commonly called the Teacher Carry Bill, it allows teachers and school service personal that volunteer to undergo special training and evaluation to carry a concealed weapon to defend the school from a terrorist attack.  It was good that the bill had strong debate, as everyone had concerns. The bill passed the House along party lines on an 89 to 11 vote.  Should the Senate pass the bill and the Governor sign it into law, West Virginia will become the 33rd state to offer this protection to students.

            The final bill of note I would like to inform you about is HB 4880, which I co-sponsor, will eliminate the final income taxes on Social Security over 3 years.  A few years ago we began the elimination of the income taxes on Social Security for those earning less than $50,000 filing singly and $100,000 filing jointly.  This will eliminate all remaining income taxes on Social Security.

            The Committee on Economic Development and Tourism convened twice this week, with a key focus on addressing an issue identified after the deadline for introducing bills. HB 5696, originating from the committee, aims to rectify a coding error related to the Upper Ohio Valley Trail Network. The discrepancy came to light during discussions about another bill concerning the Mountaineer Trail Network. The error occurred when, during the establishment of the Upper Ohio Valley Trail Network last year, the code section for the Mountaineer Trail Network was inadvertently copied, leading to the incorrect designation of Monongalia County as the lead county for the Upper Ohio Valley Trail Network. The proposed bill seeks to rectify this by naming Wood County as the lead county for the new trail network.

            The committee also had several presentations, here is one I thought may be of interest.  The first was by Tim Cotter of Racer X Magazine and promoter of motocross events around the nation.  His company is based out of Morgantown. This gives the opportunity to committee to hear how successful West Virginians grew their businesses here in the Mountain State, more importantly we learn about what obstacles still exist to further growth and what other states do differently that we can look at as best practices. During his presentation we learned the state of Texas maintains the Event Trust Funds to help companies put on large events in the state that contribute significantly to the state’s economy.  After learning of this the committee is requesting an interim study be conducted to see if this is something that West Virginia should explore to promote tourism and jobs in the entertainment event industry in our state.

            The Finance Committee, of which I am a member, is currently grappling with a demanding schedule, necessitating additional meeting times. Of notable interest statewide is HB 4883, commonly referred to as the pay raise bill, which I proudly co-sponsor. This proposed legislation aims to enhance the wages of State Police and school personnel, provided it becomes law. It's worth noting that the wages of other state employees, not explicitly outlined in the state code, will see their increases reflected in the state budget.

            If you have any inquiries, require assistance with a state agency, or wish to share ideas that could enhance our state, please don't hesitate to reach out. You can contact me at Gary.Howell@WVHouse.gov or by phone at (304) 340-3191. Your input is valuable as we work towards making positive contributions to West Virginia.

February 17th, 2024

During this week's proceedings in the 2024 West Virginia legislative session, the final opportunity to introduce bills arrived. Nonetheless, committees retain a brief window to initiate bills within their domains. Debates on the House floor have intensified, and the days have grown longer as committees strive to advance their proposed legislation.

The House passed House Resolution 6, a resolution reaffirming support for the town of Thurmond and the historic buildings within the community.  The historic town of Thurmond lies in the New River Gorge National Park and was used as a filming location for the movie Matewan.  As part of becoming a National Park, the town which is owned by the National Park Service (NPS) was to be preserved.  The NPS has stated they do not have the funding to maintain all the buildings in Thurmond and wish to tear down over half.  The people of the area and the legislature see this as violation of what was told to the people of West Virginia. The resolution is a more formal way of the House of Delegates stating the town should be saved to preserve the history.

A noteworthy bill that successfully cleared the full Legislature is SB 171. This bill will curtail County Commissions' intervention in agricultural operations, particularly addressing instances in areas like Hardy County. In such regions, newcomers from urban areas may lack an understanding of agriculture and advocate for limitations on properties owned by longstanding landowners. The bill seeks to prevent county commissions from enacting regulations that surpass state laws concerning agricultural operations, safeguarding the autonomy of long-established landowners in the process.

Another bill prompted by similar circumstances as SB 171 was HB 4782, which aims to prevent municipalities from targeting protected businesses with planning and zoning ordinances more restrictive than those placed upon other businesses.  Some cities in the state were trying to restrict Second Amendment rights, by using zoning to ban gun shops within their borders.  The bill would prevent that from happening.

            A bill that sparked significant debate during the legislative proceedings was HB 5243, titled "Relating to Women’s Bill of Rights." This legislation aims to ensure that the state code acknowledges the scientifically supported fact that there are only two genders. It achieves this by explicitly defining terms such as "female" and "male," "men" and "women," and "girls" and "boys," and stipulates that these terms should be consistently applied throughout state law. The bill passed with a vote of 87-12, with support and opposition largely following party lines.

            House Joint Resolution 28 would place on the ballot a constitutional amendment asking the people of West Virginia if they want protection from medically assisted suicide or euthanasia. If the citizens of the state choose to adopt the amendment, then going forward a future legislature will not be able to enact assisted suicide laws.

            One of the most misconstrued bills of the session, HB 4654, has been subject to deliberate dissemination of false information. Contrary to the misinformation, the bill does not ban any books, remove historical literature from the history section, or pose a threat to libraries or librarians in the state. Instead, it removes bona fide schools, public libraries, and museums from the list of criminal liability exemptions related to the distribution and display of obscene matter to minors.

HB 4654 aims to ensure that obscene materials are placed in an adult-only section of the library, away from the accessibility of children, similar to the way video stores had designated adult sections in the past. In the event of unintentional misplacement, no violation occurs, and the librarian simply needs to rectify the placement when notified. The primary intent of the bill is to protect children from exposure to explicit content, making it clear that its impact should be a concern only for those intentionally providing obscene material to children.

The Finance Committee met and mixed in with our budget presentations were several bills.  One of those, HB 5170, which I introduced, increases the size of matching grants for local economic development from $30,000 to $50,000.  This is being done to adjust for inflation. Another, HB 5128, would set up annual funding for volunteer fire departments and EMS. Last year we provided one-time funding to help fire and EMS with rising costs, and at that time we told our citizens we would work for a long-term solution. HB 5128 is our first attempt at that solution.

As the chair of the House Committee on Economic Development and Tourism, we convened multiple times to address various matters. During one of our meetings, we received a presentation from the Appalachian Forest National Heritage Area, which focuses on promoting tourism across 16 counties spanning West Virginia and Maryland, including Mineral and Grant Counties in West Virginia, and Allegany and Garrett in Maryland. Funded by the National Park Service, they play a vital role in enhancing tourism in the region.

A notable bill that advanced out of the committee was HB 5544. This legislation mandates the production of a report by the Mountaineer Trail Network, outlining the progress made toward achieving the goals established by the West Virginia legislature. This measure underscores the importance of accountability and transparency in tracking the fulfillment of legislative objectives, particularly in initiatives aimed at enhancing tourism and economic development within the state.

If you have any inquiries, require assistance with a state agency, or wish to share ideas that could enhance our state, please don't hesitate to reach out. You can contact me at Gary.Howell@WVHouse.gov or by phone at (304) 340-3191. Your input is valuable as we work towards making positive contributions to West Virginia.

February 10, 2024

This week marks the West Virginia Legislature's midpoint in the 60-day session. With the days becoming increasingly hectic, we are gaining insights into the bills likely to progress through the legislative process and those facing challenges. During this phase, House and Senate members engage in discussions to articulate the necessity and purpose behind specific bills that have crossed over.

            With house squatters in the news across the nation moving into people’s home while they are away, then claiming they are tenants, the WV Legislature decided to act.  That comes in the form of HB 4940, with the very descriptive short title of, “A squatter cannot be considered a tenant in WV.”  If this bill becomes law, then if a squatter moves into your house, you can call the police and have them removed immediately.  You do not have to go through the eviction process as if they were an actual paying tenant.

            House Joint Resolution 21 is not merely a bill but rather a resolution aimed at proposing an amendment to the West Virginia Constitution. The resolution advocates for the prohibition of individuals who are not United States citizens from participating in any election conducted within the state. This resolution is prompted by the observation that certain jurisdictions, including some cities, permit non-citizen residents to vote in local elections.

Following its approval in the House, House Joint Resolution 21 must garner a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate to advance further. If successful, it will be presented to the electorate on the November ballot, enabling the people of West Virginia to determine whether they wish to allow non-citizen residents to participate in elections.

Another occurrence across the nation that has been happening is something know as “Swatting.”  Swatting is where police are falsely called to an active shooter or hostage event that doesn’t exist.  The people that tend to be swatted are school officials, public bureaucrats and elected officials.  Law enforcement and emergency services are called in from all over to the site expecting to find a horrific event, but only find a family eating dinner after they have broken in the front door.  In some cases, guns are drawn and there is the possibility of innocent people being injured or killed.  HB 4845, introduced by Mineral County Delegate Rick Hillenbrand, makes this type of false claim a felony.  The bill passed unanimously.

            The Finance committee has proceeded with its budget hearings and reviewed several bills, none of which are particularly groundbreaking in the realm of finance; rather, they primarily involve code cleanup. One notable bill entails the elimination of a tax credit that has remained unused for 24 years, rendering it obsolete for future qualification.

Meanwhile, the Committee on Economic Development and Tourism has continued its efforts. Notably, HB 5350 seeks to broaden the definition of "recreational purposes" to encompass mountain biking activities. Existing sections of the legal code acknowledge that certain activities inherently entail risks, such as skiing and mountain climbing, and accordingly, the state imposes limitations on liability for individuals engaging in these activities in a customary manner. This bill extends such protections to include mountain biking.

            Another bill of note dealt with the fact that most small businesses start in the home and there is a movement to protect that right for people.  HB 4943 is designed to facilitate the creation of home-based businesses, while protecting the neighborhood.  The bill garnered much debate during the committee meeting and included some changes to make it clear that any home-based business had to be “no impact” to the neighborhood.  What this means is, it can’t be seen from the street.  During COVID shutdowns many people worked from home, but some cities had rules in place that made that illegal.  This bill, if it becomes law will make sure you can work as an accountant in your living room if you want to. 

If you have any inquiries, require assistance with a state agency, or wish to share ideas that could enhance our state, please don't hesitate to reach out. You can contact me at Gary.Howell@WVHouse.gov or by phone at (304) 340-3191. Your input is valuable as we work towards making positive contributions to West Virginia.

February 3rd, 2024

As the West Virginia Legislature approaches the midpoint of the session, the pace is intensifying. Meetings are extending, and legislators are scheduling discussions with committee chairs and other stakeholders to advance their bills to ensure they successfully navigate the legislative process.

The House has approved HB 4764, a bill that enables the online purchase and printing of one-trip temporary vehicle permits. Presently, individuals are required to visit a West Virginia State Police Detachment in person to acquire these permits. Introduced by Delegate Adam Burkhammer, the bill aims to facilitate private vehicle sales. This change will permit the purchase of permits during weekends and after business hours, aligning with the times when most private sales occur.  It now moves on to the Senate.

Sometimes when an event occurs it shows the need for a change in state code.  That is the case with HB 4766.  What prompted this bill was the closure of I-79 Exit 91, for Roanoke, WV. More importantly, it is the exit for Stonewall Resort State Park, a top destination in the state for tourists. The public only learned about the exit closure a few days before it was shut down. The park and local businesses had no time to prepare for a long detour, which can be as long as 23 miles if you miss the first detour exit. The bill requires posting of a road closure at least 30 days in advance, this gives the business and opportunity to notify their customers of a required change in route. 

The freedom to choose the vehicle you wish to drive is crucial. You should have the ability to select a vehicle based on your needs, rather than being restricted by the preferences of elected officials. Given the increasing calls from various states and municipalities to cease the sale of gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles, I deemed it important to safeguard your freedom to choose the power source for your vehicle. Thus, I introduced HB 4434, titled “Relating to restrictions on use or sale of motor vehicles based on power source.” This legislation aims to prevent government-imposed restrictions on the sale of vehicles and farm equipment based on power sources. Whether you prefer a gas, diesel, or electric vehicle, the choice will be yours. This bill has now advanced to the Senate.

In Committees this week, the Finance Committee continued budget hearings, but did pass one supplemental appropriations bill. Researchers at the WVU Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute have made a breakthrough in Alzheimer’s treatment with ultrasound.  Scientists from around the world are coming to West Virginia to learn more about the process and how it can be expanded, but the same research had shown that it may be able to be used to treat eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD).  As a result, the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized the WVU Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute to advance research in this area.  WVU asked for a $2 million supplemental appropriation to start this research.  The research is so promising that members of the committee asked if even more money would help. To the credit of head of research, Dr. Ali Rezai, he said no, this is what they need to move forward.  The bill passed the committee unanimously.

The House Committee on Economic Development and Tourism, of which I am the chair, passed multiple bills this week. One noteworthy bill is HB 4905, which establishes the Tourism and Commercial Opportunity Zone Tax and Tax Credit Act to provide support to tourist-related businesses. Many of these businesses are small and may sometimes be overlooked by the government in efforts to attract jobs to the state. This bill is an updated version of a House bill that successfully passed last year but didn't progress through the Senate Finance Committee. House leadership is collaborating with the Senate to emphasize the importance of aiding small businesses, not just focusing on Wall Street.

Another significant bill that the committee approved is HB 5294, aimed at modernizing West Virginia's farm winery laws. Farm wineries are significant tourist attractions nationwide. Although West Virginia generated approximately $500,000,000 in economic activity through its farm wineries last year, when compared to neighboring states and adjusted for population differences, we were $1 billion below our potential. This bill seeks to align our laws with those of neighboring states, creating a level playing field to capture that missing $1 billion from the state's economy.

January 27th, 2024

As we enter the second full week of the 2024 session of the West Virgnia Legislature it is getting busy.  Many stakeholder meetings are being held, in the meetings we work the small details on bills and make compromises to bring a bill to the floor in a form that can pass.  These meetings are important to the process.  As a citizen legislature each with a different background, we are able to bring different views and ideas to bills to make them better.

Monday was an extremely busy day for me as it was Tourism Day at the Capitol, being the Chairman of the Committee on Economic Development and Tourism, I was in high demand. My day started at about 7AM and ended at 11PM. My day started normal with the daily morning Republican Caucus meeting, then the Monday morning major chairs meeting. 

A group that puts on festival style events stopped at the West Virginia booth at a trade show in November of last year and learned about West Virginia.  They liked what they saw at the trade show, so they made the trek to our Capitol for Tourism Day.  We set up meetings with various venue operators that could meet their needs. The following day they were traveling the state seeing the venues in person.

At 10 we presented a citation to the Secretary of Tourism, Chelsea Ruby on the House floor with well over one hundred people in attendance.  We had meetings with representatives from Snowshoe and Timberline ski resorts.  The ski industry is thriving in the state and is having a phenomenal growth rate.  Timberline failing five years ago was purchased by Perfect Slopes North and with their investment in the facility it is now the top ski resort on the east coast and rivaling those in the west.

After floor session meetings continued.  Appalachian Forest National Heritage Area met to discuss tourism.  Mineral County lies within their area, and they provide many tourism related services including help with grants for things like biking and hiking trails, water trails, signage and more.  Mineral County Commissioner “Dutch” Staggs met with me as he was down at the capitol on tourism day.  We then moved to the Culture Center for a West Virgina Hospitality & Travel Association reception.  The reception featured restaurants from around the state providing their signature dishes to sample.

One of the more notable bills to pass the House this week was HB 4431 which will, if it becomes law, permit the cremation of unidentified remains in state custody.  We were told some of the oldest have been in refrigerated storage since the 1960’s.  DNA samples will be taken, and tissue samples will be preserved for future need.  The bodies are currently stored in refrigerated trailers.

Another bill to pass will help the state attract medical doctors.  HB 4768 increases the number of out-of-state medical students receiving in-state tuition rates who agree to practice for a specific time within West Virginia.  It is believed that the lower cost of tuition will attract those from other states to our state’s medical schools and the requirements to practice in the state will have them stay after their required time is up.

The House Committee on Economic Development and Tourism met and took up a bill entitled HB 4941 sponsored by Delegate Kathie Crouse.  The bill requires the acceptance of cash as a form of payment in any retail mercantile establishment in which food is prepared, sold, or served in this state, or other establishment offering goods or services for sale.  While it is printed directly on our bills “for all debts public and private” some establishments will ignore that.  This bill will put in place a $500 fine for failure to accept cash.