Marijuana, Water Bills Approved by West Virginia Legislature

CHARLESTON (AP) — West Virginia lawmakers have voted to raise water-pollution limits, legalize medical marijuana, end school standardized testing aligned with the Common Core curriculum and hold a voter referendum this year on issuing $1.6 billion in bonds to rebuild state highways and bridges.

The House and Senate, which ended their two-month session Sunday, also passed a $4.1 billion general fund budget with no tax increases and steeper cuts to higher education and Medicaid than Gov. Jim Justice wanted. The move sets up a possible veto and extra session before the new fiscal year starts July 1.

Bills to revise sales, income and gasoline taxes all advanced but none were finally passed. A bill to authorize natural gas producers to drill when three-fourths of those with royalty rights agree also foundered.

Justice has already signed new laws to end regulation of about 2,300 above-ground storage tanks and to let industrial plants discharge cancer-causing and other chemicals based on the average flow in a waterway instead of its low flow, allowing larger discharges from individual sites. It also allows “mixing zones,” overlapping discharges from multiple sites.

“Water quality standards are the safe levels of pollutants that are allowed in our streams,” the West Virginia Manufacturers Association said, urging the change. “The standards are set so that such exposures are not harmful over long exposure periods.”

The West Virginia Rivers Coalition said there are issues especially with unknown results from mixing pollution discharges and not one example offered of a specific business that needed the change.

“I did not see one pro-environment measure even given consideration let alone passed,” Executive Director Angie Rosser said of the legislative session.

A bill backed by coal producers that passed both houses also would change measurements of related stream health, relying primarily on fish populations instead of insects.

Chris Hamilton, senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said the vote was overwhelming in support of the bill, which also modified regulations on diesel engines used underground and consolidated some state oversight boards.

The House and Senate agreed to legalize medical marijuana by prescription for patients who are terminally ill or who have seizures, cancer, chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, AIDS and other specified conditions. Gov. Jim Justice said he’ll sign it. The bill doesn’t authorize smoking or patients growing their own plants. Patient identification cards could be issued starting July 1, 2019.

Both houses voted to criminalize “revenge porn,” posting someone’s intimate or sexually explicit images without their consent.

Both also voted to end $14 million in annual support for greyhound racing at the state’s two tracks. Justice vetoed that bill.

Lawmakers overrode an earlier Justice veto of legislation intended to clarify the West Virginia right-to-work law enacted last year. He said it’s currently before the state’s top court and that process shouldn’t be interfered with.

The bill approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature removes provisions from the law that would seem to exempt building and construction trade unions.

Enforcement has been blocked by a court injunction in a lawsuit brought by unions. They maintain the law illegally takes their assets since they still have to represent all employees in a union shop, including those that the law would allow to stop paying union dues.

Lawmakers voted to ban the current Smarter Balanced standardized tests in public schools that are aligned the Common Core curriculum.

They also authorized holding a referendum on $1.6 billion in bonding for Justice’s signature highway reconstruction program that would pursue matching federal funds as well. The governor said it would put thousands of West Virginians to work.

He proposed raising the gas tax 4.5 cents a gallon to support the bonds. The Senate passed the bill, but it died in the House.

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