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Report: In the W.Va. House of Delegates for week ending Jan. 19

Release from the W.Va. House of Delegates:

By Jared Hunt
Communications Director

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The House of Delegates completed its first full week of the 2018 regular session, passing its first bills and moving forward with legislation to streamline government and make it more efficient.

House Bill 2869<> was the first bill to pass the House this year. This bill, which was passed by a unanimous vote Wednesday, allows state employees who also work as emergency aid providers to be granted a leave of absence with pay to provide emergency services and relief during a state of emergency.

This would include state employees who work with their local volunteer fire departments, and are often on the front lines of providing aid during natural disasters.

House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said this was the first of a series of bills he hopes to see passed this session to help improve the state’s response to natural disasters, like the floods that ravaged much of the state in 2016.

“We want to do everything we can to make sure the full resources of the government can be brought to bear to respond to natural disasters, such as the floods that affected so many communities in recent years,” Speaker Armstead said.

“We’ve identified several areas where we can improve our government’s ability to respond, and we’re working on a number of bills to implement these improvements,” Speaker Armstead said. “The goal is to make sure our first responders and emergency response agencies have all the tools they need to save lives, provide aid and help communities rebuild after a disaster.”

On Friday, the House Committee on Government Organization approved two additional bills that would help the State Conservation Committee and Conservation Agency provide aid following a flood.

House Bill 4161<> would exempt the Conservation Committee and Conservation Agency from state Purchasing Division requirements when entering into contracts for natural disaster recovery or stream restoration activities. It would also exempt all joint funding agreements entered into with the U.S. Geological Survey.

The second bill, House Bill 4162<>, would give the State Conservation Committee the authority to enter into contracts for flood response, recovery and streambank restoration work and to maximize federal dollars by collaborating with federal agencies responding to flood events.

Delegate Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, is the lead sponsor of both bills, and also serves as co-chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding. The Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding held several hearings over the past year to gather testimony on the state’s disaster response and recommendations from local officials on ways to improve it.

“One of the big themes we heard in those hearings was the frustration people had with the bureaucratic red tape that got in the way of disaster response,” Delegate Hanshaw said. “We want to make sure that government rules and regulations aren’t tying up aid or hindering response times, and these bills are a step to address that.”

House Bill 4161 and 4162 now head to the House Judiciary Committee for review before going to the full House for a vote.

* * *

Meanwhile, lawmakers are reviewing two separate bills that would significantly reform and realign two cabinet-level state agencies to make them more efficient and cost-effective.

House Bill 4014<> would reorganize the state Department of Health and Human Resources by breaking it up into smaller, more focused agencies: the Department of Health and Healthcare Compliance, the Department of Human Services, the Office of Inspector General and the Department of Healthcare Facilities.

The Department of Health and Healthcare Compliance would contain the Bureau of Public Health, the Health Care Authority, Bureau for Child Support Enforcement and oversee various Chapter 30 boards. The Department of Human Services would oversee many social service programs, such as the Bureau for Child and Family Services, the Bureau for Economic Assistance, the Bureau for Medical Services (including the state’s CHIP program), the Office of Drug Control Policy and the Bureau for Behavioral Health.

The Department of Healthcare Facilities would oversee the state’s hospitals and nursing facilities and the Office of Inspector General would be in charge of oversight, licensure and certification programs.

House Committee on Health and Human Resources Chairman Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, said lawmakers are concerned the DHHR has grown too large and cumbersome to effectively do its job.

“There are a lot of services, a lot of things available to people, but are they effectively being given to the clientele to take care of the problems?,” Chairman Ellington told the Beckley Register-Herald<>. “We don’t think that’s happening and we want to change the system…there’s a lot of money from the feds and a lot of money put in from the state, but we’re not seeing any end result.”

Another bill, House Bill 4006<>, would reorganize the various agencies under the Department of Education and the Arts and move them to other departments where they can be managed more effectively.

Gov. Gaston Caperton initially tried to set up the Department of Education and the Arts in an attempt to shift control of public education away from the state Board of Education. However, voters in 1989 rejected a constitutional amendment supporting this idea.

Despite that defeat, the Department of Education and the Arts has continued to exist, with various programs tacked onto it over the years.

While this bill would eliminate the cabinet-level Department of Education and the Arts, it does not eliminate the broad array of programs currently under its umbrella. Instead, these agencies will be moved to other departments – such as the Departments of Commerce or Education – where they are a better fit to operate.

House Education Committee Chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, said the Department of Education has committed to continuing AP certification programs, the Governor’s School for the Arts, Energy Express and other programs currently under the Department of Education and the Arts. The Department of Education has also said they can run these programs more efficiently and at significantly less cost.

“All of those programs are going to continue,” Chairman Espinosa said Thursday on Talkline with Hoppy Kercheval<>. “They simply will not have that duplicative bureaucracy that Education and the Arts represents.”

In addition to reorganizing the agencies under the Department of Education and the Arts, House Bill 4006 also reforms the way the state provides professional development to educators, shifting away from a state-mandated approach to education to one that gives local school districts, principals and educators more power to make decisions closer to the classroom.

The bill would empower principals to collaborate with their teachers to determine what kind of professional development they need, rather than requiring them to adhere to state master plans mandated from Charleston.

House Bill 4006 was approved by the House Education Committee on Wednesday. It now goes to the House Finance Committee for further consideration before being sent to a full vote in the House.

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