West Virginia Legislature Passes 2021 Broadband Bill

The Legislature has completed the bill, but not without strong words from some members who say broadband lobbyists tried to take control of the bill when they decided they didn't like some of the Legislature's proposals.

West Virginia Capitol Building
Shutterstock/Sean Pavone
(TNS) — The enthusiasm West Virginia lawmakers had for this year's broadband bill on Day 1 of the legislative session turned into strife with industry lobbyists by Saturday, the last day of the session.

The Legislature completed its work on House Bill 2002 Saturday, but not without strong words from House of Delegates Technology and Infrastructure Chairman  Daniel Linville , R- Cabell. Linville said broadband lobbyists tried to take control of the bill when they decided they didn't like some of the Legislature's proposals, particularly those setting up funds and parameters for how any public money would be disbursed among broadband providers.

In the span of about four hours on Friday, the Senate adopted, reconsidered and then rejected an amendment from Sen.  Bob Plymale , D- Cabell, to establish certain funds to be used for programs that support broadband expansion in the state.

Linville said by offering that amendment, the Senate was met with opposition from the broadband industry, including representatives of Suddenlink
, Comcast, CityNet and others.

"They think that because we need this so desperately that they can write legislation," Linville said. "  Mr. Speaker , I submit to you that they cannot."

The Senate message about its passage of the broadband bill came to the House at about 8:30 p.m. Saturday, with just over three hours left in the session.

Linville said that was by design to force the House's hand to accept the Senate's
 amendments.

"Last year the Senate stripped our broadband legislation down to its bare bones, and we accepted it after they held the message until about this time," Linville said. "We sent this bill to the Senate on March 5. That's 40 days and 40 nights. We got a good bill, but it could've been better."

The Senate Judiciary Committee originally took out many of the consumer protection provisions of the bill, but the Senate Government Organization committee restored one protection that will require broadband companies to issue credit to customers who are without service for more than 24 hours for reasons that are beyond their control.

Most significant to Linville, the Senate also removed a provision that would have required representatives from broadband companies that receive money from the government to build or improve broadband networks to testify before the House Technology and Infrastructure Committee upon request.

The loss of that provision led Linville to put the last word on the 2021 broadband bill as one of caution.

"I will promise you this: if you're a bad actor, if you're serving the people of the State of West Virginia, and if you take money and you don't get the job done as the House Committee on Technology and Infrastructure has demonstrated this year, we'll invite you to appear under oath," Linville said. "If an invitation doesn't suit you, we will subpoena you.

"I hope that fixing the damn internet will be the priority we all say it is, and I don't mean in a partisan fashion. Put in the work."

Lawmakers in both parties have said broadband was a high-priority issue, and Gov.  Jim Justice  mentioned the need to improve the state's broadband infrastructure during his State of the State address in February.

The bill will go to Gov.  Jim Justice  for his consideration.

Here is a look at some of Saturday's other legislative activity as of press time:

----A compromise version of legislation intended to strike a balance between gun owners' fears of prospects for stricter federal gun safety laws and executive orders, while assuring state and local law officers are not prevented from working with or receiving funding from federal authorities, was modified Saturday in response to comments made by President  Joe Biden  on Thursday.

House Bill 2694, amended Wednesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee to remove language that would have prohibited state and local officers from enforcing federal gun safety laws stricter than state law to instead prohibit federal commandeering of local law officers, was revised Saturday to respond to concerns raised in Biden's Rose Garden speech on gun violence.

As amended Saturday, the legislation would prohibit courts from issuing or officers from enforcing "red flag" laws, which allow courts to temporarily order the seizure of firearms from individuals when family members have shown they pose a threat to themselves or others — something the legislation declares is "an anathema to law-abiding West Virginians."

It would also prohibit law officers from making arrests during traffic stops or noise complaints to enforce "inconsistent" federal firearms laws or executive orders enacted after Jan. 1, 2021.

The newly amended bill passed the Senate 30-4. It passed the House 92-7 without debate.

----At about 6:30 p.m., the Senate went full stop on a bill that would have limited the ability of county and municipal governments to pass ordinances dealing with certain labor and environmental practices.

Senate President  Craig Blair , R- Berkeley, ruled that a strike and insert amendment to House Bill 2500 wasn't germane to the bill, meaning the amendment was dealing with parts of state law that weren't part of the original version of the bill.

Sen.  Richard Lindsay , D- Kanawha, raised the point of order asking if the amendment was relevant to the bill, leading to Blair's ruling.

That meant the bill the Senate went on to adopt in a 23-11 vote is identical to the version of the bill the House passed on Feb. 23

Before Blair restored the bill to its original version, the Senate Government Organization Committee had adopted an amendment that made the bill more closely resemble the original version of Senate Bill 303, which the Senate passed on March 17. Senate Bill 303 died after being referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

Senate Government Organization Chairman  Mark Maynard , R- Wayne, was the lead sponsor of SB 303, which was largely taken from model legislation written by the American Legislative Exchange Council, most commonly referred to as ALEC.

The group is a conservative-leaning nonprofit organization known for writing model legislation for state lawmakers to use across the country.

Now, House Bill 2500, if it becomes law, will prevent local governments from banning straws and other disposable utensils, solely based on what they're made of. No city or county in West Virginia has passed any measures banning the use of plastic straws, utensils or other food or drink containers.

If the bill becomes law, no local government would be able to restrict the use of, or establish any tax or fee on, any "auxiliary container," whether it's single-use or reusable.

Auxiliary containers are defined as a "bag, cup, bottle or other packaging" that's designed to contain food or beverages purchased from a retail or food service facility and is made of cloth, paper, plastic, cardboard, corrugated material, aluminum, glass, post-consumer recycled material, or similar material.

---- The Legislature passed a bill to change the methodology for valuing producing oil and natural gas wells Saturday. The House of Delegates approved the bill, as amended by the Senate earlier in the day, in a 57-43 vote.

The bill allows the state Tax Department limited latitude to propose rules for approval by a legislative rule-making committee.

Under House Bill 2581 as passed by the Legislature, the Tax Department is directed to propose emergency rules by July 1 on valuation of properties producing oil, natural gas and or natural gas liquids while providing for a tax on net profit by defining net proceeds for oil and natural gas as actual gross receipts based on sales volume minus royalties and operating costs for expenses including lease-operating, lifting, compression, processing and transportation.

The Senate Judiciary Committee had removed that methodology from the bill, but the full Senate restored it.

Some House and Senate members had voiced concerns about a Tax Department estimate that the original bill that county school boards and commissions would absorb a loss of $9 million in property tax revenues during the first full year of effect.

Delegate  Dianna Graves , R- Kanawha, contended on the House floor Saturday that what she characterized as a compromise version of the bill would not hit counties nearly as hard financially as the original version, partially due to a new tax on natural gas liquids, including propane, ethane and butanes.

An impetus for the bill was a 2019 state Supreme Court of Appeals ruling in which the court held in part that the Tax Department improperly imposed a cap on gas well operating expense deductions.

The bill now goes to Gov.  Jim Justice  for his approval.

---- The House on Saturday night wrapped up work on House Joint Resolution 2, which will allow West Virginians to vote on whether any elected official facing impeachment proceedings in the Legislature should be able to stop those proceedings in court.

The resolution comes almost three years after the state Supreme Court handed down a ruling that effectively stopped impeachment proceedings against four sitting justices at the time.

The members of the court that handed down the decision in the case, styled Workman v. Carmichael, for former Supreme Court Justice  Margaret Workman  and former Senate president  Mitch Carmichael , all were appointed to the state's highest court on a temporary basis to hear the case.

During debate about the resolution Friday, Senate Judiciary Chairman  Charlie Trump , R- Morgan, called the court's decision in Workman v. Carmichael "a complete usurpation of legislative authority," saying the Supreme Court treated the Legislature as a lower tribunal instead of a co-equal branch of government.

The question is set to be on the ballot during the 2022 general election.

Voters will consider whether they want to add language to the state Constitution saying that no court in the state can interfere with impeachment proceedings in the House or Senate, or appeal any judgment the Senate makes in its role of holding trials for impeached officials.

Marc Williams , the attorney who represented Workman in Workman v. Carmichael, sent out a tweet Friday saying the amendment wouldn't stop constitutional challenges to impeachment in federal court under the U.S. Constitution.

----Legislation making permanent state beer, wine and liquor laws that were liberalized during the pandemic, including expanding outdoor dining options, expanding hours of service, expanding delivery and shipping options, and making licenses available for fairs, festivals, farmer's market and multiple vendor events, among other changes won approval late Saturday (HB2025).

The bill also reduces for two years various licensing fees to aid bars, restaurants, brewers, wineries and distilleries that were hard-hit by closures and restrictions during the pandemic.

The bill passed the Senate on a 27-7 vote, and passed the House 72-27 after extended debate, including from critics who saw it as too broadly expanding state alcohol laws.

"This is a booze bill on steroids," Delegate  Tom Fast , R- Fayette, complained.

----The House of Delegates unanimously approved Saturday a bill that would enact several changes to the state's coal severance tax rebate program approved in 2019, with the intention of encouraging economic development in the coal industry.

Senate Bill 718 would expand the base period for coal severance tax rebate calculation, instituting a base period consisting of the five previous years for calculating rebates instead of the current base period of either tax year 2018 or the second year of a two-year period of an eligible rebate recipient who produced coal for only two years before investing in new machinery and equipment.

The 2019 law provided for tax rebate opportunities for coal companies that made a qualifying capital investment demonstrated by buying new equipment, real property and reporting an increase in employees.

The bill passed Saturday requires there be an increase in coal production and the number of full-time employees across all the taxpayer's mines in order to qualify for the tax rebate. It also expands rebate eligibility to investments in repairing and refurbishing coal equipment. The previous legislation allowed for rebates only for investments in new equipment.

The changes proposed in SB 718 would not affect the state's general revenue in fiscal year 2023 or thereafter, according to an estimate from state Department of Revenue Deputy Secretary  Mark Muchow , who estimated in 2019 that the Legislature's steam coal severance tax reduction from 5% to 3% would cost the state $64.1 million per year in general revenue starting in fiscal year 2021.

The bill now goes before Gov.  Jim Justice  for his approval. Senate Finance Committee counsel noted at the committee meeting from which the bill originated last month that the legislation came at the request of the Governor's Office following several months of negotiations with industry representatives.

---- The Legislature passed a bill creating a state wind and solar reclamation bonding program after the Senate signed off on a House of Delegates amendment to the bill to relax some of the bonding requirements in the legislation.

The Senate approved Senate Bill 492 in a 29-4 vote Saturday to send the bill to Gov.  Jim Justice .

The House amendment eliminates the original bill's minimum bond value of $150,000 and increase the minimum capacity for capacities to be subject to the bill from 0.5 megawatts to 1 megawatt.

----A bill to create a cost savings program to reduce energy usage in state buildings passed through the Legislature Saturday night upon unanimous approval by the Senate.

House Bill 2667 aims to reduce energy usage in all state buildings by 25% below 2018 levels by 2030. The bill also requires annual reports to the Legislature on building energy performance compared to similar buildings in similar climates. Under the bill, the West Virginia Office of Energy is slated to audit at least 20% of energy-metering devices at state buildings each year so all devices are audited by the end of 2026.

The legislation, which the House of Delegates passed in a 97-3 vote on March 30, directs the state to establish a program for measuring and benchmarking the energy efficiency of all state buildings by July 1. The bill also requires the state to compile and submit energy usage data for all state buildings to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-operated benchmarking tool by Oct. 1 and again each subsequent year.

©2021 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.