CHARLESTON — The House of Delegates passed its first bills of the 2017 session this past week, with lawmakers focusing efforts on boosting government ethics and accountability and gathering more information on the state’s budget situation.
The House passed its first bill on Wednesday – House Bill 2006 – which increases penalties for individuals who retaliate against workers who turn over information about wrongdoing or waste at state agencies under the state’s Whistle-Blower Law. The bill, sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, passed unanimously.
People who turn over information under the Whistle-Blower Law are protected from retaliation by their superiors or co-workers. House Bill 2006 increases the fine for violating this law from $500 to $5,000, allows public agencies to fire employees who break this law and provides for a removal process of elected officials or agency appointees who break this law.
This bill is the first of several designed to strengthen the state’s Ethics Act, as well as boost transparency and accountability in government practices.
“The House of Delegates is committed to ensuring honest, fair and transparent governmental practices,” said House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha. “The people of West Virginia deserve to have confidence that government officials are working for the people and not themselves.”
The second of these ethics-related bills, House Bill 2319, will be up for vote on Monday. That bill – sponsored by Delegate Jill Upson, R-Jefferson; Speaker Armstead; and Delegates Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur; Matt Rohrbach, R-Cabell, and Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier – would require lawmakers to disclose fundraising activities during a legislative session within five days of hosting a fundraiser.
“Citizens have a right to know who is giving money to lawmakers during the legislative session, when important decisions are being made,” Delegate Upson said. “Transparency is important, and this bill will give the public quick access to see who is donating to their elected officials while we are in Charleston.”
Other ethics-related measures on the agenda this session include bills that will prohibit nepotism, forbid city council members or mayors from also being city employees, strengthen the state’s pension forfeiture law, and require businesses bidding on government contracts to disclose lists of interested parties in their companies.
Meanwhile, the House Finance Committee this week continued its work to gather more information on the state’s budget situation.
Lawmakers are facing a nearly $500 million gap in the state’s General Revenue Fund budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Gov. Jim Justice earlier this month proposed closing this gap with more than $450 million in tax increases, while House leaders are crafting an alternative solution.
This week, the Finance Committee heard budget presentations from the Departments of Commerce, Education and Administration and the West Virginia Conservation Agency. The committee also received a presentation from the Pew Charitable Trusts about public pension funding and how West Virginia compares to other states.
House Finance Committee Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, said he hopes to have the framework for an alternative budget plan in place and on a path to approval much sooner this year compared years past.
“The Finance Committee is doing a tremendous amount of due diligence right now,” Chairman Nelson said. “We are exploring various options to close this budget gap, and making sure we carefully evaluate each of these proposals. We know this is a critical issue on the minds of many West Virginians and we want to get it resolved as soon as is practically possible.”
Much of the committee work this week focused on review and approval of state agency rules bills, which must be approved by the Legislature before they can be implemented. There are currently 82 bills pending before various committees which deal with rules and regulations that have been proposed by various state agencies.
Under the state’s Legislative Rule-Making Review process, rules proposed by most state agencies, boards and commissions are submitted to the interim Legislative Rule-Making Review Committee, which makes recommendations regarding the proposed rules to the full Legislature. The Legislature then has the authority to approve or reject the proposed rules.
“The rule-making process is designed to make sure agencies are creating rules that further the intention of laws passed by the Legislature and reflect the will of the people,” said Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, who serves as the co-chair of the Legislative Rule-Making Review Committee. “Each rule must go before the citizens of this state for a comment period. This allows every interested citizen the opportunity to provide their input. The Legislative Rule-Making Review Committee then makes recommendations that keep the rule consistent with the Legislature’s original intent.
“This process is important because it helps prevent some of the problems we’ve seen on the federal level in recent years, where unelected executive branch bureaucrats have imposed broad, burdensome regulations that go well beyond the intent Congress had in mind when it passed the laws under which these regulations were written,” Delegate Sobonya said.
In addition to the Legislative Rule-Making Review process, the House Committee on Government Organization’s Subcommittee on Anti-Competitive Rules and Regulations has also been set up to make sure there are no other rules on the books that have become a hindrance to job growth and economic development in the state.
Jared Hunt is the communications director for the West Virginia House of Delegates.