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Lawmakers return, put off education bills

CHARLESTON — Resumption of a special session ostensibly called to address public education issues put off education bills Monday, but in relatively rapid-fire fashion, corrected and re-passed a number of bills that Gov. Jim Justice vetoed for technical errors, and also passed a number of supplemental appropriation bills — including bills moving tens of millions of dollars of additional funding for repair of crumbling state roads.

That included a $54 million appropriation to the state Road Fund, made possible by Gov. Jim Justice earlier Monday raising estimates for overall 2018-19 tax collections by $42.3 million, creating a total budget surplus for the year of $72.6 million (Senate Bill 1016).

The bill passed over objections from Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, whose regular session bill to increase legislative oversight of Division of Highways spending was vetoed by Justice.

"I'm a little concerned we're giving them more money without no oversight," Smith said.

However, Sen. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, countered that the Legislature's obligation is put as much additional money as possible toward repairing crumbling state roads.

"The Legislature has one thing we need to do with respect to roads, and that's to provide funding," he said, adding, "Let's

make sure the governor knows the ball is now in his court."

Additionally, the Legislature passed bills moving $34.5 million from various 2018-19 Highways accounts into road maintenance for the current budget year (House Bill 119), and to move $287.55 million of 2019-20 Highways funds into road maintenance and equipment purchases for the next budget year, as part of Justice's efforts to "fix the damn roads."

The one-day resumption of the special session that began March 10 did not delve into Gov. Jim Justice's call for public education "betterment," although Democrats in both houses introduced a series of individual education reform bills, including a bill to give promised pay raises averaging 5% to teachers and school service personnel.

The Senate on Monday rejected on a mostly party line 15-17 vote a motion to by Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Mar-ion, to immediately take up and pass the pay raise bill.

"The governor, the speaker and the president made a promise," Prezioso said, referring to a gubernatorial press conference last fall when Justice pledged to provide a second round of pay raises to teachers and service personnel. "I think we now have a chance to keep that promise."

Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harri-son, argued that the Legislature should not hold the pay raises hostage as leverage for other education proposals.

However, Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, stressed that House and Senate leadership had agreed that education issues would be put off until the next resumption of the special session.

"We made it very clear we were going to take up education on a specific date," he said.

Sen. Kenny Mann, R-Mon-roe, who Senate President Mitch Carmichael previously removed as Senate Education chairman, voted with Democrats in favor of the motion. Sens. Paul Hardesty, D-Logan, and Michael Maroney, R-Mar-shall, were absent.

In the House, delegates adopted on a 79-18 vote, over some objections from House Democrats, a resolution setting up four 25-member select committees on education to study the yet-to-be determined reform proposals.

On Monday, Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, assigned eight education reform bills introduced by Democrats to the four select committees.

In a statement, House spokesman Jared Hunt said the select committees are intended to maximize delegates' input when the education special session resumes.

"With all delegates expected to be in Charleston and paid during the session, the speaker wants to make sure they are working and actively participating in this process while they are here," he said.

Among corrected versions of legislation that Justice had vetoed for technical errors that were re-passed Monday were bills to:

• Clarify that state anti-hazing laws apply to fraternities, sororities, and other organizations that are not affiliated with or sanctioned by institutions of higher education (Senate Bill 1004).

• Allow the state Board of Physical Therapy to conduct criminal background checks on applicants for license, and to disqualify applicants found to have been convicted of certain crimes (Senate Bill 1006).

• Create a student loan repayment program for mental health providers who practice in under-served areas of the state (Senate Bill 1009). Participants would be eligible for up to $10,000 a year of loan forgiveness for up to three years.

• Create a voluntary certification process for community drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers (Senate Bill 1012).

• Offer tax credits to privately owned water and sewer utilities that provide reduced rates for low-income residential customers (House Bill 117).

• Continue the Upper Kanawha Valley Resiliency and Revitalization Program through 2024 (Senate Bill 1001).

Meanwhile, the fate of a bill to encourage investment in low-income communities designated as Opportunity Zones through enhanced tax credits (House Bill 113) was in doubt after the House rejected a vote to suspend a constitutional rule requiring bills to be read on three separate days.

That means the bill will be on amendment stage on the House floor when the special session resumes.

Just when the session will resume is unclear, as leadership tries to reach consensus on a public education reform agenda. While discussions have leaned toward resumption in June, Takubo said Monday it could be as early as next week.


Several American flags retired in Ironton ceremony

IRONTON, Ohio — Arrick's Propane, in partnership with the Veterans of Foreign Wars and local Boy Scout Troop 106, hosted an American flag retirement ceremony Monday morning in Ironton, Ohio.

"I think it went tremendously. We had an absolutely beautiful day for it and several dignitaries around from around the area were able to come join us for the ceremony," Arrick's Ironton Branch Manager Nathan Davis said.

Just one flag was retired in Monday's ceremony due to time constraints, but Davis said enough flags to fill a pair of 30-gallon trash bags were given up for retirement by people in the community, which prompted the company to introduce a new American flag disposal box that will be available for residents to bring their American flags that are ready to be retired.

The box will be located on the outside of the building and available to the public at all times. When the box is full, Arrick's Propane will present all of the flags to be burned in retirement.

"This was an easy idea for us because I only know of one other location to drop off old flags, and that is the VFW in Ironton," Davis said. "This will just give another location for people to drop flags off and make sure they are retired properly."


Agreement would allow HPD to work with ICE

HUNTINGTON — Huntington Police Chief Hank Dial is asking City Council to approve a memorandum of understanding allowing officers to be reimbursed for drug trafficking investigations with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

If approved, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will reimburse each officer no more than $15,000 per year to conduct investigations into cross-border drug smuggling operations.

ICE's Homeland Security Investigations unit falls under the Department of Homeland Security and investigates matters of human trafficking, illegal immigration, antiquity theft and gang activity, among other transnational criminal activities.

Dial said the Department of Homeland Security is seeking to expand its offices in Huntington and Charleston and reached out to the Huntington Police Department for assistance.

"They have needs and we have assets that match," Dial said.

A large amount of opioid drugs sold in Huntington are trafficked from across the border, he said. The goal will be to identify who is bringing them into the city and then hamper or eliminate any trafficking operations.

Dial went before members of the city's Public Safety Committee on Monday. The committee agreed to forward an ordinance creating the agreement between ICE and the Huntington Police Department to city council with a favorable recommendation. The agreement will require two readings before it may be adopted.

If approved, Huntington police officers will be reimbursed for leading or assisting in investigations of drug smuggling from ICE's Treasury Forfeiture Fund.

"When we work with them sometimes the city incurs costs when we are assist them with their investigations," Dial said. "This will allow us to recoup the cost spent working on Homeland Security Investigations in the department."

Huntington police will be required to file an invoice for overtime salary reimbursement and reimbursement for travel, fuel, training and equipment.

The city is still required to make tax withholdings and provide health insurance coverage. Benefits are not reimbursable, according to the agreement.

Dial said a $15,000 reimbursement limit for each officer per year is standard and is in place for the city's other federal task force partnerships.

Also during Monday's meeting, committee members agreed to update the city's ordinance involving school bus stops to mirror existing state law. The West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles may suspend someone's license for illegally passing a stopped school bus on a second offense. City Council will need to approve the updated ordinance.

Dial also introduced a resolution that would make modifications to the city's Policemen's Civil Service Commission rules and regulations. Among the changes are an increase to the age limit of new hires to 41, changes to mental and physical testing based on updated state law and adding language to seniority for consideration in promotions. New computer programs allow departments to determine an officer's seniority down to the date they started as opposed to just going by the officer's start month and year, he said.

Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.

"This will allow us to recoup the cost spent working on Homeland Security Investigations in the department."

Hank Dial

Huntington police chief


Study: Ending exchange endangered at-risk population

CHARLESTON — Dissolved under pressure rooted in stigma rather than science, the suspension of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department's syringe exchange program "fundamentally changed the health landscape" for intravenous drug users in multiple negative ways, according to a study published Monday night by Johns Hopkins University.

Since KCHD ended its syringe exchange in 2018, the study found Charleston's IV drug use population is now injecting with used syringes more frequently; has less access to naloxone, the drug used to reverse an opioid overdose; and is less likely to be tested for HIV in what the study now calls "a new era of increased risks for acquiring bloodborne infections and overdose."

Findings are based off research gathered by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in September 2018, roughly six months after the program's closure in March.

Researchers personally interviewed 27 active IV drug users in Charleston, the majority who had used the syringe exchange during its roughly two-year operation, to gauge how their lives and practices have changed.

The study found that not only did the program's closure defy best medical practice in restricting resources to a vulnerable population, it also left those who needed them most feeling "abandoned by the community and city leadership when it closed," said Dr. Sean Allen, the lead researcher who wrote the report.

"There's obviously a lot of stigma attached to drug use, and people need to be reminded these aren't just unknown people out in the community; these are somebody's sons or daughters and they all have a story," Allen said in a phone interview Monday.

They need to be treated with dignity and respect, and we need to destigmatize (drug use) and provide access to these resources."

By 2018, KCHD's syringe exchange program served more than 400 individuals each week — "remarkable given the relative rurality of Kanawha County," the study states.

But the program was divisive in the community, exacerbated during the run-up to the November 2018 election when the syringe exchange became a flashpoint topic, particularly during the Charleston mayoral race.

Outgoing mayor Danny Jones was a vocal opponent of the program, calling it a "needle mill" and claiming crime had "skyrocketed" as a result.

Those surveyed in the study described being stigmatized for their drug use before, during and after the syringe exchange operated, adding it was a disincentive for them to access health care.

The 27 participants overwhelmingly described hardship in acquiring clean syringes elsewhere — either buying them legally or on the street, stealing from clinics and family members with diabetes, or through other nonprofit options.

"I mean, you've got four or five people sharing a needle," one male participant described, "And then they'll throw it down on the ground and maybe somebody else comes along and they pick it up and they think burning it with a lighter will sterilize it.

"Well, that's not so."

While the majority stated they did not want to share syringes for fear of contracting HIV or hepatitis, few were able to avoid it when the syringe exchange was suspended. Many described sharing syringes with only close friends or sexual partners.

"It grosses me out," one female participant said in the study. "Every time I do a shot I go 'I feel it. I feel the HIV coursing through my veins.'

"And it's a joke," she continued. "But at the same time, it's not. I laugh about it because if I don't I'd probably scream..."

In the study, Allen writes the survey serves as a call of action for Charleston's policymakers to stand by evidence-based best practices rather than "inaccurate and misleading reports" about syringe exchange, particularly with an active HIV cluster currently 50 miles away in Cabell County.

"Choosing to ignore the evidence-base for (syringe exchange) operations not only presents an ethical and moral dilemma, but also sets the stage for an HIV outbreak and worsening overdose epidemic," the study states.

The full study is available online at https://harmreduc-tionjournal.biomedcentral.com/track/pdf/10.1186/sl2954-019-0305-7.