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WV lawmakers pass overdose-tracking, broadband legislation



Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Amid a significant rise in drug overdose deaths across West Virginia, state lawmakers bypassed their normal rules late Saturday night and completed legislation that aims to establish a comprehensive system to track overdoses.

The reporting system would put the state in a better position to secure grant funding to help curb drug-related offenses and reduce the state’s overdose death rate — the highest in the nation. Nearly 850 West Virginians fatally overdosed last year — a record number.

“A tsunami has hit our state,” said Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell. “It’s called opioid addiction. It’s breaking down the fabric of our entire state.”

About 30 minutes before the end of the regular legislative session Saturday night, the Senate suspended its rules, reading the overdose-tracking bill twice and taking a final vote, after the legislation mistakenly got shelved the day before. The House passed the bill — called the West Virginia Drug Overdose Monitoring Act — last month. The legislation next moves to the desk of Gov. Jim Justice, who’s expected to sign it into law.

The bill (HB 2620) would establish a central repository for drug overdose statistics and drug crime data.

The state Medical Examiners Office now reports overdose deaths, but most nonfatal overdoses go unreported.

Under the bill, police, hospitals and paramedics would be required to report fatal and nonfatal overdoses — and whether an overdose-reversing drug called Narcan was administered.

The legislation also would establish an Office of Drug Control Policy. Many states have such agencies.

Senate Democrats said the Senate should not have waited to pass the bill on the last night of the session.

Also, with only four minutes to spare in the 2017 legislative session, both chambers of the Legislature agreed on a version of the West Virginia Second Chance for Employment Act.

Pending a stroke of the governor’s pen, certain non-violent felony offenders will be able to petition courts to reduce their felony convictions to misdemeanors after proving 10 years of good behavior.

The legislation would not apply to offenders whose crimes involved sex acts, driving under the influence, the use of a firearm, the victimization of a minor and certain other crimes.

Though the original Senate version called for total expungement, the House of Delegates whittled it down to its current form.

Should a circuit court judge decide to grant any ex-convicts the conviction reduction, they could legally mark on job applications that they have never been convicted of a felony. However, the offense would still be noted on a background check as a felony reduced to a misdemeanor.

Also Saturday:

The House of Delegates agreed to the Senate’s changes to a comprehensive broadband bill (HB 3093) designed to spur competition among internet providers. The bill is moving to the desk of Gov. Jim Justice for his signature.

The legislation authorizes a pilot project in which up to three cities or counties can join together and build a broadband network. Also, up to 20 families and businesses could form nonprofit co-ops and provide internet service.

The bill makes it easier and quicker for smaller internet firms to secure access to telephone poles owned by utilities. Another section allows the state Economic Development Authority to back bank loans taken out by internet providers. Frontier Communications and cable internet firms opposed the bill.

The Senate gave final approval to a bill aimed at jump-starting the process of trying to protect West Virginians from future flooding and reduce damage to lives and property from floods that do occur.

Senate members voted 34-0 in favor of the bill. The June 2016 floods killed 23 people.

House Bill 2935 creates a State Resiliency Council, a multi-agency panel that would resume examination of a long-ignored plan aimed at protecting communities across the state from flooding. It would also create a permanent legislative committee that would oversee flood protection, response and recovery efforts.

The House went on to approve the Senate’s changes.

The legislation was based on a Gazette-Mail report, published after last June’s fatal flooding, that revealed state officials had never fully implemented a detailed plan aimed at preventing floods and reducing damage when floods do occur.

State lawmakers put the finishing touches on legislation that bans teenagers from using tanning beds.

The Senate approved the bill (HB 2520), which previously was passed by the House.

State law already requires tanning salon customers to present a photo ID.

Young people under 14 years old aren’t permitted to use a tanning bed under existing law. But those ages 14 to 17 are allowed, provided they have written parental consent.

The bill would prevent anyone under the age of 18 from using a tanning bed.

Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, said his daughter recently went to a tanning salon.

“Her back literally looked like someone took a lighter and burned the skin off her back,” Ojeda said. “I mean, it scabbed up. It really scared me.”

The House accepted Senate amendments to HB 2428 and sent it to the governor.

The legislation authorizes the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Resources to use $24 million from recent lawsuit settlements with drug distributors to expand drug treatment facilities around the state.

The House and the Senate agreed to a version of a “revenge porn” bill, or SB 240, Saturday. Under the bill, anyone who shares intimate images of another person without his or her consent can be charged with a misdemeanor. If convicted, they could serve up to one year in prison and be fined between $1,000 and $5,000.

If the same person is convicted of the same crime a second time, he or she can be charged with a felony offense. If convicted, the offender can be sentenced to up to three years in jail and fined between $2,500 and $10,000.

The bill has been sent to Justice for review.

Lawmakers gave final approval and sent to the governor the coal industry-backed Senate Bill 687.

The bill weakens the standards for determining when streams are impaired by mining pollution. Industry officials hope the bill helps them combat citizen lawsuits under the Clean Water Act.

It started out as legislation that eliminated most state mine safety enforcement, but lead sponsor Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker and a Mettiki Coal employee, backed off that language. The Senate agreed to House changes to extend the terms of members of the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety.

The Senate passed the bill 28-4. Sens. Beach, Miller, Romano, and Unger voted against it. Sens. Blair and Karnes were absent.

The Senate passed an amended version of what used to be a stringent voter identification requirement bill. The original draft of the legislation would have forced voters to present a state-issued photo identification card before casting a ballot. This was a step up from legislation passed last year requiring voters to show poll clerks any one of a broader set of identification forms that do not necessarily require a photo.

However, a House subcommittee gutted this year’s bill into its current form. Should the governor sign, a provision of last year’s bill requiring the Department of Motor Vehicles to automatically register citizens to vote until July 1, 2019 instead of July 1, 2017.

Additionally, the DMV will cease its practice of forwarding personal information of anyone who opts out of the automatic registration to the Secretary of State.

State lawmakers gave final approval to a bill (SB172) Saturday night that will slash salaries of board members who oversee a state agency that handles financing for water and sewer projects in West Virginia.

After a contentious conference committee meeting of three House members and three senators, the two sides agreed to drop Water Development Authority members’ pay to about $150 a meeting. Board members now collect $12,000 a year to attend four meetings.

The Senate’s version of the bill would have eliminated water board members’ pay entirely.

The meeting got off to a rocky start, as House members threatened to walk out after senators balked at paying the water board members anything. State Sen. Mike Woelful, D-Cabell, stepped in to referee the squabble, and senators agreed with House members that the board members should be paid $150 per meeting.

In June, a Charleston Gazette-Mail investigation revealed that a water authority board member hadn’t attended a board meeting since 2011, but the state paid him $58,300 for doing nothing during his nearly five-year absence. The board member’s term on the board officially expired in June 2012, but he stayed on the agency payroll until the same week the newspaper inquired about him receiving payments for missed meetings.

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