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West Virginia House, Senate consider dozens of bills


The State Journal

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Members of the West Virginia Senate and House of Delegates had a busy Friday, March 24, passing or advancing dozens of bills as the 60-day legislative session heads into its final days.

Among bills approved by the House of Delegates on Friday was House Bill 3093, a broadband expansion bill that would give greater power to the state Broadband Council, allow communities to form internet co-ops and force internet service providers to be more honest in advertising available service and internet speeds.

Bill sponsor Delegate Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said the Broadband Council would be tasked under the bill to create and maintain accurate coverage maps of internet service availability and speeds. The bill would also allow for microtrenching of narrow, shallow trenches for running internet conduit and expedite the process for attaching internet cable to existing utility poles.

The bill also would prohibit service providers from advertising “up to” internet speeds, and instead require providers to tell customers what minimum speeds they could expect.

But Hanshaw said the most important part of the bill was the provision that would allow individuals and businesses to form internet co-ops to raise money to bring internet services to unserved areas. Hanshaw said the co-ops would be eligible for tens of millions of dollars in federal grant money to extend internet service.

The main reason rural areas of the state can’t get high-speed internet service is that established providers don’t want to spend the money to extend service to isolated areas, or can’t afford to.

The broadband bill passed by a vote of 97-2.

Also Friday, the House passed House Bill 2364, which would allow the state to sell of Jackie Withrow Hospital in Beckley. The hospital provides care for elderly and mentally ill patients, but is in need of more than $20 million in repairs.

Patients housed at the facility would have to be put in another local facility under the provisions of the bill, and state officials would have to try to minimize the effects of closing the hospital on staff. The bill passed by a vote of 58-41.

The House also approved House Bill 2679 on Friday by a vote of 94-4. The bill would allow firearms to be carried in state and county parks for self-defense, and would prohibit county parks from banning guns.

Coonskin Park in Kanawha County is apparently the only county park in the state to prohibit guns. Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, argued county officials should be allowed to restrict guns in the park because it is next to Yeager Airport and state National Guard facilities, but the park was home to a skeet range for several years.

In the Senate on Friday, senators voted 22-12 on a bill that would transfer the state Division of Forestry from the Department of Commerce to the Department of Agriculture. Foresters in the division would retain their salaries under the transfer, but would lose civil service protection and become at-will employees under the change.

Commerce officials laid off 37 foresters last year due to budget problems. Other foresters have been operating under the control of the Department of Natural Resources. Gov. Jim Justice recently ordered 15 of the laid-off foresters be brought back to work.

Sen. Ron Miller, D-Greenbrier, said Forestry was transferred to the Department of Agriculture once before, and said the arrangement didn’t work out very well. Miller asked lawmakers to conduct a study of moving the agency before transferring it to the agriculture department.

Senators also split 18-15 on a bill that would require state education officials to adopt a test like the ACT for high school students. Debate over Senate Bill 18 grew heated on Thursday after Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, amended the bill to require legislative approval for any changes made.

Senators voted unanimously in favor of Senate Bill 76, however. The bill would allow for the expungement of nonviolent misdemeanors and some nonviolent felonies after one to three years of serving a prison term. The bill was intended to give those who have been in jail a second chance at getting a job and improving their lives, according to Senate judiciary committee chairman Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan.

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