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W.Va. House OKs inventory tax repeal

CHARLESTON — Long at the top of the tax cut wish list for manufacturers and corporations, prospects for eliminating state property taxes on business inventory, equipment and machinery in West Virginia are closer than ever to fruition with passage of a joint resolution in the House of Delegates on Wednesday.

House Joint Resolution 3 was adopted by the House on an 84-16 vote, despite concern that it could cut funding to public school systems, counties and cities by more than $500 million a year. Joint resolutions require a two-thirds majority vote for passage.

If approved by that majority in the Senate — which has its own version of the resolution pending — it could set the course to place a referendum on the November 2022 general election ballot to revise the state constitution’s Tax Limitation Amendment of 1932.

Adopted at the height of the Great Depression to help residents avoid foreclosure on their homes and farms, the amendment set low levy rates for real and personal property, and locked them into the constitution, beyond the purview of legislation.

If approved by voters, the amendment would give future legislatures authority to lower or eliminate tax rates for business inventory, equipment and machinery, as well as for personal property taxes on motor vehicles.

Critics of the proposal raised concern because nothing in it mandates future legislatures to replace the potential loss of $500 million a year in tax revenue for school systems, which receive more than 60% of total property tax revenue, and county and municipal governments.

“It would be a rational concept if it included a provision making the local governments whole, but it does not,” said Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson, explaining why he was voting against the resolution.

Del. Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, questioned whether the resolution is constitutional, since the constitution requires all classes of taxpayers to be treated equally.

House Judiciary Chairman Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, said that, as a resolution, that decision rests with the people of West Virginia.

He said of the constitutional amendment, “It gives us the ability to regulate these four buckets of taxes. It doesn’t require we act.”

In the Senate, a companion resolution was slated for a passage vote Wednesday, but it was moved to the Rules Committee in anticipation of taking up the House resolution in the Senate.

The Senate would have the option of amending its resolution, which is broader in that it would allow the Legislature to set tax rates for all classes of personal property, into HJR 3.

Also pending as the 2021 legislative session counts down to an April 10 finale are dueling versions of bills to phase out state income taxes, with the House plan calling for a phaseout in multiples of $150 million a year with no new taxes, and a Senate plan that would cut income taxes by $1.09 billion initially, while hiking sales and other taxes by more than $900 million a year.

Several bills this session would cut state funding for cities and counties, but at least one bill is still alive that could give counties a way to recoup some lost revenue.

A bill that would allow counties to impose a 1% sales tax advanced Wednesday from the Senate on a 29-5 vote (Senate Bill 550). That would extend the taxing authority that municipalities have under home rule to counties.

“This will at least allow county courthouses to keep their doors open,” Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, said.

Fisher House now open to serve family members of VA patients

HUNTINGTON — Loved ones of veterans receiving care from the Hershel “Woody” Williams Veterans Affairs Medical Center now have a cost-free option to stay close by while their relatives are being treated.

“People can come here and stay completely cost-free to them while their loved ones, our veterans, are being treated,” Fisher House Manager Jason Wyant said. “It can be for one night, or it can be for however long they need to stay. There is no limit on how long they can stay, and we will just keep helping make sure they feel at home.”

Built and gifted to the Hershel “Woody” Williams VA Medical Center, the Fisher House officially opened its doors Wednesday and can house families, caretakers and loved ones of veterans who otherwise would be far away or have to find potentially costly housing.

As a separate building, the house includes 16 bedrooms, a double kitchen area, laundry facilities, dining rooms and lounge areas so that anyone who is waiting for their family member to recover can stay without being concerned with costs.

There is an application process before people can move in, and those interested have a consultation to ensure they qualify. Applicants must live more than 50 miles away from the center and must be free of communicable diseases and able to take care of themselves.

Additionally, the facility is available for qualified family members or caregivers who have veterans receiving any type of health care covered by the VA, even if the veteran is not staying at the center full time.

“Not only do we take care of folks who are getting cared for in the medical center, but we take care of folks who are getting care in the community if it is paid for by the VA,” Wyant said. “So veterans that are receiving care in any facility, as long as the VA is handling that care, loved ones can stay in the Fisher House.”

The cost-free living means those who are approved to stay in the Fisher House do not have to worry about paying for rent, laundry or even food.

Wyant said the organization is working on filling the kitchen with items available to every resident. Since the Fisher House runs off donations, it has received some food donations and some monetary donations that will be put toward food and drinks.

While every resident is welcome to eat anything provided by the Fisher House kitchen, Wyant said, they also are welcome to bring their own food. The kitchen, with two ovens, sinks and stovetops, also includes lockers for residents’ personal food items.

Bedrooms can have single or double beds, televisions, dressers, desks and more, and there is a lock on each bedroom door to ensure safety and comfort.

Wyant said families sometimes need a place to decompress after visiting with loved ones in a medical center, and he hopes the Fisher House is the place for residents to rest and feel refreshed before returning to their veterans to stay supportive.

The Fisher House is located on federal land, so the house will be required to follow all federal safety guidelines concerning the COVID-19 pandemic, said Dwayne Rider, public affairs officer for the VA medical center.

“Everyone will be wearing the masks and following the social distancing guidelines as set by the federal government,” Rider said. “If the federal government gets stricter, then we get stricter, and if the local government eases things up, we stay strict. We want to keep everyone as safe as possible.”

Rider said residents will be able to be maskless in their private rooms, but all other spaces will require masks.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fisher House is only able to use 25% of its space, limiting how many families are able to stay. If the house is at capacity, Wyant said the Fisher House has other ways of serving loved ones.

Through the Hotels for Heroes program, family members can stay at a hotel free of charge if there is not available space in Huntington’s Fisher House. This program is not just available during the COVID-19 pandemic, and will continue when the coronavirus is no longer a major threat and the Fisher House is at 100% capacity.

Wyant said his biggest hope is to make everyone feel at home and comfortable, and knowing loved ones are comfortable can help veterans recover.

“We feel like home is the best medicine for folks to heal, so if you have your family in a place where they feel at home and are comfortable while you’re getting care at the medical center, we feel like that makes the healing process easier and maybe more successful,” he said.

Rider said the Fisher House is accepting applications and they hope to have an official grand opening later this year.

34 more virus deaths unreported in W.Va.; hospitalizations, positive cases going up

CHARLESTON — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Wednesday announced 34 additional COVID-19 deaths that had previously gone unreported.

The total of previously unreported deaths is now 219. The state announced 165 COVID-19 deaths March 12 after officials learned of lags in the death reporting system. Justice announced March 19 that another 20 deaths went unreported.

Among the unreported deaths Wednesday was a 34-year-old woman from Wayne County and a 47-year-old man from Wetzel County. Justice also reported an additional four people who died of the virus since Monday’s press briefing.

With all these deaths now reported, as of Wednesday, 2,676 West Virginians have died from COVID-19.

Justice said an internal investigation into why the deaths were not reported has been completed, and he said he hoped Wednesday would be the last announcement of unreported deaths, but they “are still trickling in to us.”

“I can tell you that it is unacceptable to me in every way, and we are going to fix this,” Justice said.

The governor also announced the Department of Health and Human Resources will be implementing a new statewide electronic death reporting system in response to the errors. Justice said West Virginia is one of the few states in the country that hasn’t been using an electronic system.

Justice said “we didn’t think” the state would need an electronic reporting system at the beginning of the pandemic.

Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president of health sciences at West Virginia University and the state’s coronavirus czar, said while deaths are plateauing in the state, positive cases are again trending upward.

“We continue to do well relative to the rest of the country, but we are also seeing an upswing in the number of cases over the last week,” Marsh said.

Hospitalizations are also slowly ticking up, Marsh said. As of Tuesday, 237 people were hospitalized with the virus. On March 12, that number was 151. Another 80 people are in intensive care units, and 22 West Virginians are on ventilators, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard.

The ages of those infected are going down, Marsh said, with the average age of new COVID-19 cases being 34. He said it shows younger people are spreading the virus at a more concerning pace.

There have been 53 cases of the United Kingdom variant detected in West Virginia — mostly in border counties, Marsh said. Data has shown people infected with this strain of COVID-19 have a higher risk of dying from the virus.

State officials have also found 130 cases of the California variant. Marsh said this strain isn’t as lethal, but it spreads much quicker than the U.K. variant.

Marsh urged West Virginians to continue taking all precautions to slow the virus’s spread, as people are still dying every day.