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At the Capitol: House continues consideration of medical marijuana

By Phil Kabler

For the West Virginia Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Going into the final week of the 2017 regular session, as legislators and the Justice administration continued to struggle to come up with a state budget plan, the buzz (pun intended) at the Capitol was over legislation to legalize medical marijuana.

In a rare procedural move, House members voted 54-40 Thursday evening to discharge the bill (SB386) from committee, sending it to the House floor.

Otherwise, the bill would have had to win approval in two House committees before coming to the full House – a tough slog with just eight days remaining in the regular session.

Discharge motions are rare, and almost always fail. Following the discharge vote, there was speculation that House leadership would attempt to send the bill to the powerful Rules Committee, where it would be squashed for the remainder of the session.

That did not happen. Instead, delegates on Friday agreed to push back second reading of the bill – when amendments may be offered – until Monday. That was at the request of Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, who asked to have the weekend to research medical marijuana laws in other states, and to craft possible amendments.

“The sole purpose of this is to get some options to the members, because not all medical marijuana laws are the same,” he said.

It was a remarkable turn of events for a bill that appeared dead a week earlier, but had been relentlessly championed by Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, the bill’s lead sponsor.

An Army veteran, Ojeda touted medical marijuana as an effective treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by many combat veterans.

“We have thousands of veterans from this state that have seen things I pray you or your children never have to see,” he said in a Senate floor speech.

The bill passed the Senate by a surprisingly wide margin, 28-6. If the bill becomes law, West Virginia would be the 29th state to legalize medical marijuana.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jim Justice and legislative leaders continue to struggle to come up with an agreement on a budget bill that would close a $500 million shortfall in the 2017-18 state budget.

Late in the week, Justice called a press conference to advise that he “got right to the altar” in budget negotiations with House leadership, but couldn’t close the deal on the last $45 million of tax increases needed to balance the 2017-18 state budget bill.

“We couldn’t get the vote. We couldn’t get a decision,” Justice said Thursday during a press briefing. “The Republicans couldn’t decide what to do, and then they left, and that was last night.”

Justice – who had originally proposed nearly $400 million in tax increases to close a nearly $500 million revenue shortfall in the 2017-18 state spending plan, said negotiations were down to getting House leadership to sign off on one of two tax measures: A ¼ percent increase in the consumer sales tax, to 6.25 percent, or a combination of a 15-cent a pack increase in the cigarette tax and a 2-cent per can tax on sugary soft drinks.

Both increases are scaled back from Justice’s original proposals.

In his initial budget plan, Justice had proposed a ½ percent increase in the sales tax, from 6 percent to 6.5 percent, and in what has come to be known as his Budget 2.0 plan, Justice proposed tax alternatives geared at promoting better health, including a 50-cent a pack tobacco tax hike, and a 1-cent per ounce tax on sugary soft drinks.

House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, said House leadership is continuing to look instead at broadening and lowering consumer sales taxes, by eliminating exemptions on a number of professional and personal services that are currently exempt from sales tax collections.

Justice has not supported those proposals, contending that they shift tax burdens onto lower- and middle-class families.

“Who’s going to carry the burden? The people – the everyday Joes, and who’s going to get off scot-free? Jim Justice – the rich guy,” Justice said of the legislative tax plans.

Meanwhile, Justice’s budget plan got a boost Friday evening, when the state Chamber of Commerce endorsed his plan to put a .00045 percent Commercial Activities Tax on business gross receipts to raise $45 million a year, calling it the least painful option for businesses to help resolve the state budget crisis.

“Having a very limited tax that is broadly applied, and that sunsets on a date certain is something, based on feedback we’ve gotten from employers, that they can live with,” Chamber of Commerce president Steve Roberts said Friday.

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