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Pending amendments would restore cuts to W.Va. budget bill

CHARLESTON — With no apparent consensus of support for any of three versions of income tax cut plans, the West Virginia Senate on Tuesday postponed action on the bill, House Bill 3300, as well as on the Senate and House versions of the 2021-22 budget bill.

Both Senate Bill 125 and House Bill 2022 cut more than $80 million of spending from Gov. Jim Justice’s proposed $4.569 billion general revenue budget — would-be cuts made on the assumption that there will be revenue losses stemming from passage of income tax cuts in some form.

There are several amendments to the budget bill pending, including several that would restore proposed budget cuts — including major cuts to West Virginia University and Marshall University.

Sen. Michael Woelfel, D-Cabell, lead sponsor of an amendment to fully fund the universities, on Tuesday called on colleagues to support the plan.

“Why would we send a message to the world that we don’t value higher education?” he said of the pending cuts. “Why would we send a message that we don’t mind raising tuition on our students?”

As currently drafted, the Senate version of the budget would cut WVU’s appropriation by $12 million, to $85.02 million, and cut Marshall’s appropriation by $6 million, to $40.76 million.

The House version makes steeper cuts up front, but backfills the funds with surplus dollars from an expected $200 million revenue surplus for the current 2020-21 budget year, which ends June 30.

The Senate budget bill, which assumes passage of the Senate’s proposal to make larger cuts to income taxes next year, does not make up any of the funding cuts.

If none of the income tax cut proposals are enacted, with time running out before the regular session ends Saturday, April 10, that could free up using some or all of the $80 million in planned cuts to restore funding cuts in the House and Senate versions of the budget.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, also is lead sponsor of two pending amendments, one of which would also fully restore funding to the two universities, and one that would fully fund Marshall while restoring $7 million of WVU’s proposed $12 million cut.

In Tuesday’s floor speech, Woelfel said some proponents of cutting the WVU and Marshall budgets argue that with the federal CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan, WVU is receiving a total of about $50 million in federal pandemic stimulus funds, while Marshall is receiving about $23 million.

“Some in this body are going to say WVU and Marshall are going to get a windfall from COVID dollars, so they don’t need the money in the budget,” said Woelfel, who said the stimulus funds won’t come close to replacing the tens of millions of dollars the institutions lost during pandemic-forced shutdowns and hybrid virtual/classroom learning alternatives.

“It’s going to take both institutions a decade to recover from the pandemic,” he said.

Another issue in the Senate budget is that it zeros out funding for the state Educational Broadcasting Authority, which operates West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, has an amendment pending to fully restore Public Broadcasting’s $3.83 million appropriation, while Trump is offering an amendment that would provide $3.31 million, amounting to a $500,000 budget cut, as well as an amendment that would fully fund Public Broadcasting.

The Senate bill would create a new budget line item to fund the “Mountain Stage” radio program, currently funded under the EBA’s umbrella, and Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, has an amendment pending to increase funding for “Mountain Stage” from $300,000 to $450,847. Tarr’s amendment does not restore any Public Broadcasting funding.

Public Broadcasting is fully funded in the House version of the budget.

Meanwhile, Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, has an amendment pending that would increase funding for the state Broadband Enhancement Fund from $1.64 million to $51.64 million.

During an explanation of the House version of the budget bill Friday, House Finance Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, said the House had not provided any additional funds for broadband expansion.

Bill to provide PTSD benefits to first responders heads to W.Va. Senate floor

CHARLESTON — After several years of trying, a bill to provide workers’ compensation benefits to first responders has made it to the floor of the West Virginia Senate.

House Bill 3107 permits first responder agencies like police and fire departments to offer workers’ compensation benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder connected to the job.

The Senate Health and Human Resources Committee passed the bill Tuesday, sending it to the floor for a vote.

The bill, championed by Del. Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, has been introduced several times over the past few years. It passed the House last year, but died in the Senate Finance Committee.

Previous versions of the bill mandated coverage be provided, but lawmakers had concerns about the affordability of such a mandate.

Erin Hunter, deputy insurance commissioner and counsel for the West Virginia Insurance Commission, told the committee Tuesday that benefits for PTSD are hard for insurance companies to rate because so few jurisdictions offer this benefit. Those that do offer the benefit also typically have self-funded plans, which do not report data; therefore, there is a lack of information to rate the benefit.

Hunter said there may be some self-funded first responder agencies — like Huntington and Charleston’s police and fire departments — that could afford to take this new benefit on, but it is likely out of reach for volunteer fire departments.

She said VFDs already report struggles with their insurance rates. They must buy off the private market and are subject to high rates because they are high risk.

Hunter also said there are high rates of PTSD among first responders, which could lead to the benefit being too expensive. But she said the bill is a good way for the state to dip its toes into the water and begin offering this benefit.

In a study published in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, researchers found that EMS workers in the United States were about 10 times more likely to have suicidal ideations and/or attempt suicide compared to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention national average. Firefighters are also at higher risk for suicide, with one nationwide study finding 46% of firefighters had suicidal ideations.

Hunter said she worked with constituents on both sides of the matter to draft this year’s legislation.

Unlike previous years, the bill is bypassing the Senate Finance Committee and heading straight to the floor. It could be read for the first time as early as Wednesday, April 7.

Tri-State in bloom: Color pops as flowers, trees blossom throughout region

HUNTINGTON — Springtime has brought a cornucopia of color to the Tri-State.

Colorful blooms can be seen on trees dotting the landscape around Cabell County, with trees in bloom near the Cabell County Courthouse in Huntington as well as on campus at Marshall University.

Tulips, daffodils and other flowers have also bloomed, adding even more color to the area.

People in search of more blooming flowers and trees can head to one of 11 wildflower trails in West Virginia. From the Sunrise Carriage Trail in Charleston to the Dolly Sods Wilderness in the Monongahela National Forest, a variety of colorful flowers can be seen on hiking trails throughout the state.