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Cabell Midland's Jaydyn Johnson (12) and Huntington's Mehki Barlow (23) battle for a rebound during a high school boys basketball game on Thursday, April 8, 2021, at Cabell Midland High School in Ona.

River Valley Child Development Services Executive Director Suzi Brodof talks with representatives of the Order of the Eastern Star Huntington, Chapter 8 on Friday, April 5, 2019, at the River Valley CARES facility in Huntington.

W.Va. Senate passes transgender athlete bill

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Senate on Thursday passed a bill banning transgender middle school, high school and college girls and women from playing on women’s sports teams.

The legislation (House Bill 3293) now returns to the House of Delegates, which must decide whether to accept or reject the Senate’s changes.

Among the Senate’s amendments was expanding the bill to affect colleges. The House version of the bill affected only middle and high school sports under the supervision of the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission. The SSAC regulates basketball, soccer, cross country and other sports.

The issue is largely supported by conservatives, and despite Republicans holding 23 of the 34 Senate seats, the bill passed only by an 18-15 margin.

Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, was absent, so there were only 10 Democrats present for the vote. All 10 voted no, and they were joined by Republican Sens. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall; Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha; Chandler Swope, R-Mercer; Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha; and Ryan Weld, R-Brooke.

Takubo is the Senate majority leader, and Weld is the Senate majority whip, so two of the four official Senate leaders voted against it. Takubo, Weld and Maroney all expressed concern over the fact that the bill would impact colleges.

An NCAA rule dating back to 2011 allows transgender female athletes to participate on women’s teams, but only after at least a year of testosterone-suppression treatment.

“So it’s a policy of inclusion after that year,” Weld said on the Senate floor Thursday. “This would be a policy that at no point becomes inclusionary at the higher-education levels, so we would be against a policy at the NCAA.”

He said he worried that could mean ramifications for West Virginia college athletes in general.

“I couldn’t take any action here that would potentially put into jeopardy the hard work that our college athletes put into a season because the NCAA, right or wrong, could say to WVU, West Liberty, Fairmont, Marshall, whomever, you’re no longer in the league, you can’t play in the game, or you’re not going to be a tournament host site,” Weld said. “They could. Now, I don’t agree with it, but they could.”

Among the groups opposing the bill are the West Virginia State Medical Association, the West Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the West Virginia Psychological Association and the West Virginia School Psychologists Association.

Democrats raised concerns about discrimination against both transgender students and students who could wrongly be accused of being transgender.

“What effect do you think that would have on a 14-, 15-, 16-year-old girl that might be a tomboy but a hell of an athlete, and an opposing player or parent of an opposing player challenges them, or somebody on the same team challenges them because she’s the star of the club and they want that person off of the club?” asked Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison. “What psychological effect do you think that’ll have on that child, on that poor girl?”

Sen. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, asked, “When’s the last time you sat down and talked to the young people in this state? Are you still campaigning at the McDonald’s, having coffee in the mornings with our wonderful retired folks in our neighborhood, or are you talking to the kids? They want a more inclusive society.”

Sen. William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, spoke directly to Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley. As president, Blair appointed Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, to lead the Senate Education Committee. Rucker chose to put the bill on that committee’s agenda in the first place.

“I’m surprised this bill is even running,” he said. “I don’t have control over what hits committees, I don’t have control about what hits the floor, but you do, Mr. President. You could stop bills like this if you cared enough to look to the future, if you really wanted 400,000 people to come here.”

Rucker defended the bill, saying it acknowledges that there’s a difference in physical ability between men and women.

“This isn’t against anyone,” she said. “It is for, for the policy of helping our girls, helping our women have the opportunity. That is what Title IX was about.

“It is the best interest of the state to protect women and girls and protect the opportunities for them to participate in sports,” Rucker said. “Supporting this is simply doing that.”

Child development services employee accused of stealing more than $4.7 million in federal funds

HUNTINGTON — A former River Valley Child Development Services employee has been accused of embezzling more than $4.7 million in federal funds, according to federal documents filed Thursday.

Ruth Marie Phillips, who was arrested at her Chesapeake, Ohio, home, was charged Wednesday with theft concerning programs receiving federal funds after an affidavit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia by State Police Trooper Bradford S. Burner.

Phillips is accused of opening a bank account for the agency under false pretenses, which she used to funnel millions of dollars from legitimate River Valley Child Development Services bank accounts.

Susan Brodof, executive director of River Valley Child Development Services, said a new employee who was tasked with bookkeeping after Phillips departed the agency in 2020 noticed a few “red flags,” including missing checks, which prompted a full review. That review led the agency to contact federal authorities for further investigation, she said in an emailed statement.

River Valley Child Development Services is communicating with attorneys, insurance carriers and other involved parties to ensure the funds are restored to the fullest extent possible, Brodof added before asking for the community’s continued support during this challenging time. Brodof said she believes 95% of the missing money is from federal funding.

“Moving forward, we will do everything within our power to not only correct any injustice done to us, to our supporters and ultimately to the children and families we serve,” she said, “but to also work diligently every day to ensure that this type of issue can never happen again.”

She added previous audits conducted by a firm of public accountants did not uncover the missing money and, as a result, they have contracted with a new firm.

River Valley Child Development Services provides after-school programs, services and support to children, families and the early childhood community. It offers school programs in Cabell County, family child care food programs serving five counties and child care resources and referral agencies throughout the state. It also includes the West Virginia Birth to Three program and West Virginia Early Childhood Training Connections and Resources.

Because of its programs, it has received more than $1 million in funding from 2013 to 2020 through the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources and Department of Education, Burner wrote.

Phillips worked as the director of business and finance for River Valley Child Development Services and its predecessor organization from 1986 until her termination around September 2020. She was responsible for all financial operations of the business, including audits, payroll and management of grant funding. Although she was not a certified public accountant, she also prepared tax forms for the agency and was responsible for accounting.

Around 2001, Phillips created a business known as Attitude Aviation, an aeronautical services business serving clients in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. It operated at the Lawrence County Airpark and Tri-State Airport.

Phillips opened an account at BB&T bank around the same time, using the River Valley Child Development Services name and federal employer identification number but her own residential address on the paperwork without the knowledge or permission from the agency.

Burner wrote that during his investigation he found Phillips moved funds from River Valley Child Development Services to that account since at least 2013 through August 2020 despite River Valley only having legitimate accounts at Chase and City National banks.

Burner accuses Phillips of creating false invoices and transferring funds for those invoices to the unauthorized account. The invoices were for as much as $121,032 and were paid through River Valley Child Development Services’ legitimate accounts. The invoices total at least $4,721,731.

After depositing the checks into the BB&T account, Phillips would issue checks directly to herself and Attitude Aviation. Attitude Aviation received about $3.4 million, while Phillips received about $1.15 million.

Phillips was taken into custody Thursday in Chesapeake by the FBI. A motion to detain her pending her trial has been filed by federal prosecutors. If convicted, Phillips faces up to 10 years in prison.

Hayden Bowman, 15, a Fairland student, will race Bandalenawhiz, a mare, at the National Barrel Racing Association Youth World's Championship this July in Perry, Georgia. Bowman trains with Ashley Piles Ashley Piles at the Ohio Horse Park in Franklin Furnace, Ohio.

Fate of tax cut bill, reconciliation of budget bill unresolved as W.Va. session nears end

CHARLESTON — On day 58 of the 60-day regular legislative session, the fate of a West Virginia income tax cut/sales tax hike proposal, and what final form the 2021-22 budget will take, remained unclear after the Senate passed new versions of both in a contentious Wednesday night session.

As of Thursday evening, the House of Delegates had yet to formally receive either House Bill 3300 and House Bill 2022 from the Senate, amid bipartisan concern over the latest incarnation of a plan to slash state personal income taxes, while making up some of the lost revenue by hiking sales taxes and eliminating several exemptions in existing law.

On Thursday afternoon, Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, said he understood that the bill is dead in the House for the reasons raised in the Senate floor debate Wednesday night.

“This personal income tax bill was rushed so fast, even your members didn’t know what was in it,” he told Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley.

Romano raised objections to leadership moving the new version of the bill without knowing fiscal implication and with no input from economists or tax experts.

The latest version of the tax proposal passed the Senate on an 18-16 vote during a heated late-evening floor session. The bill advanced despite complaints from senators that they were being asked to vote on the new plan just two hours after they received it and without any idea of what the new proposal will cost the state.

At least two senators cited Senate Rule 15a, which requires that bills having a financial impact be accompanied with a fiscal note detailing the effects of those changes.

“You’re not going to hide from the people of West Virginia the fiscal impact,” Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, told Blair after his request under Rule 15a was denied.

A motion to recommit the bill to Senate Finance by Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, was rejected by senators on a party-line 23-11 vote.

The 11th-hour version of the tax plan would cut income taxes by an estimated $818 million in the first year, less than the $1.07 billion cut in the Senate’s original proposal and less than the $1.06 billion cut sought by Gov. Jim Justice, but steeper than the House plan to more slowly phase out the tax in annual multiples of $150 million.

The new plan also proposes an increase in the state sales tax by 33%, from 6% to 8%, nearly the same as the 7.9% rate Justice proposed but lower than the original Senate proposal of a hike to 8.5%.

Soft drinks would be taxed at that 8% rate under the new proposal.

It also eliminates several sales tax exemptions for professional services, advertising and other activities. It does not, however, restore sales taxes on groceries, as the original Senate proposal did.

It also features a tiered severance tax plan favored by Justice that would use higher severance tax rates if prices for coal, natural gas and oil top thresholds to partially offset income tax losses. That’s still counter to the House plan, which does not increase other taxes, setting up a mechanism to rely on anticipated economic growth to provide revenue to offset the annually increasing losses in income tax revenue.

The plan also provides rebate checks to people making $35,000 a year or less who otherwise would see a higher tax burden under the proposal, albeit in smaller amounts than the rebates that Justice has said are integral to his plan.

Justice, in a statement Thursday, applauded Senate Republicans for pursuing the tax plan. He called on House members to reconsider their opposition to the tax cut/tax increase option.

“We will continue to work with members of the House to get this bill across the finish line,” Justice said. “I truly believe that, as we share with them the undeniable benefits of our plan, it will become clear that the repeal of the personal income tax will make life better for all West Virginians.”

Justice added, “I continue to encourage the House to be open-minded and to stop scaring people by distorting the impact of small tax increases, while leaving out the large magnitude of the tax deductions and the rebate checks that are also part of the plan.”

House Democrats, meanwhile, issued a statement opposing the Senate Republican plan, calling it a tax shift, not a tax break.

“This tax increase does not help working West Virginians. It is a tax break for wealthy West Virginians at the expense of everyone else,” Dels. Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, and Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, said in the statement. “It hurts small businesses. It hurts border counties. It hurts consumers.

“We will not support any plan that raises taxes on West Virginians, shifts the tax burden to West Virginians or cuts funding from current state programs like the Promise Scholarship, programs for our seniors and funding our schools,” the delegates stated.

Skaff is president of HD Media, parent company of The Herald-Dispatch and Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Meanwhile, Wednesday’s Senate action on the budget bill moved the Senate and House versions of the bill closer to agreement.

Senate amendments adopted Wednesday mostly restore major budget cuts the Senate budget had made to West Virginia University, Marshall University and the Educational Broadcasting Authority, which operates West Virginia Public Broadcasting. The Senate version of the spending plan had cut WVU’s general revenue appropriation by $12 million, Marshall’s appropriation by $6 million and had zeroed out funding for Public Broadcasting.

The amended budget bill would fund WVU at $95.56 million, about $1.5 million less than the $97.02 million appropriation in the governor’s proposed budget. Marshall would receive $46.06 million, about $700,000 less than the $46.76 million recommended in the governor’s spending plan. The bill now restores $3.77 million in EBA funding, about $60,000 less than the governor’s plan but improved over no funding.

The funding levels are consistent with a mandate in the Senate version of the budget plan directing virtually all state agencies and offices to cut spending by 1.5% in the coming budget year.

The House version features steeper funding cuts to WVU and Marshall in the base budget, but fully funds both using a portion of what is expected to be more than $200 million in unspent revenue from the current 2020-21 budget.

On Wednesday, Justice issued a proclamation extending the 60-day legislative session by one day to complete work on the budget bill if necessary. The regular session ends Saturday, April 10.

For the past three years, the Legislature had broken with precedent by passing the budget bill during the regular session and not requiring an extended session for the budget, although one had been given.