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Special Session Comes to Close in West Virginia Legislature With Final Votes on Vaccine Exemptions, Broadband Funding

Photo Courtesy of W.Va. Legislative Services The State Capitol in Charleston is seen in this file photo.

CHARLESTON — After 10 days of debating over redistricting maps, fights over exemptions for COVID-19 vaccines, and agreement on coronavirus relief dollars for broadband expansion, the third special session of 2021 came to an end.

The House of Delegates met Wednesday night after adjourning Friday subject to the call of House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, to give the state Senate time this week to come to an agreement on a senatorial district map.

While the two legislative bodies traditionally approve each other’s senatorial and delegate redistricting plan, the House amended the bill to fix technical issues with census blocks included in the bill. SB 3034 passed 72-19, which redraws the state’s 17 senatorial districts based on population losses and population shifts. The Senate concurred with the changes.

Several Democratic members of the Kanawha County delegation in the House voted no. The new map splits Kanawha County between three districts. It was previously only split between two districts.

Del. Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, was also not happy that Monongalia County did not get its own two-member district due to its population growth. Instead, Monongalia and Marion counties remain divided between the 2nd and 13th senatorial districts.

“The districts shall be bounded by county lines,” Hansen said.

“The ideal population for a senatorial district is 105,513, and the population in Monongalia County is 105,822. It’s almost spot on, the population for its own senatorial district. … If there ever was a single county in West Virginia that should be provided its own senatorial district, Monongalia is that county.”

The House concurred with changes made by the state Senate on Tuesday to House Bill 335, which creates a process for public and private sector employees to seek medical and religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates from employers. The House voted 66-24 Wednesday to concur with the changes.

The Senate amended the bill to include language that if any part of the bill is deemed unconstitutional or invalid by future federal laws and rules, those federal laws and rules won’t invalidate the entire state law. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is developing rules requiring businesses with more than 100 employees institute vaccine mandates.

Hansen criticized remarks made during the Senate’s debate on the bill Tuesday. Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, compared COVID-19 vaccine mandates from President Joe Biden to “Nazi Germany.” Hansen said vaccine mandates were a far cry from the war crimes perpetrated by Nazi Germany.

“If we’re debating a bill, and you think perhaps comparing it to Nazi Germany a good idea, perhaps take a breath and reconsider,” Hansen said.

The Senate passed HB 335 Tuesday night by a slim 17-16 margin, but the bill did not get the two-thirds of members required to make the bill effective from passage, meaning that the bill would not take effect until 90 days from Wednesday.

The House also passed several supplemental appropriations for broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved parts of the state, approving spending of $90 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds out of the $1.36 billion available to the state for COVID-19 relief expenses and infrastructure, and $10 million in funding from the state budget for wireless broadband projects on state communications towers.

The $90 million in ARPA funds is separate from the $136 million the state is set to receive from ARPA specifically for broadband expansion, bringing the total spend to $236 million. Gov. Jim Justice announced a $1 billion broadband strategy Friday using multiple federal funding streams, similar to a $1 billion plan announced by Justice and legislative Republicans last year at a campaign event.

“On the north steps of the Capitol approximately one year ago, we promised $1 billion in broadband investment in this state over the next 10 years,” said House Technology and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, a non-voting member of the state Broadband Enhancement Council. “Today after these series of bills are completed, we will have a total between federal, state and local dollars put forward of over $500 million dollars.”

House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, thanked U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who was the only member of the state delegation to Congress who voted for ARPA in March. Fluharty accused Republicans of taking credit for the federal funding of “political plagiarism.”

“I want to thank leadership for getting us here, true leadership, and when I say leadership, I obviously mean Democratic leadership,” Fluharty said. “Democrats are bringing that money here … political plagiarism is what we have right here. If you submitted this paper in college, you’d be expelled instantly, but in politics, you just pat each other on the back and say what a great job you did.”

Another bill, originated by state senators Tuesday and approved by the House on Wednesday creates a broadband development fund for the Office of Broadband within the new Department of Economic Development. Money placed in the fund can be used for expenses, fiber line extensions and development, major broadband project strategies, and GigReady incentive projects for state and local public/private partnerships.

The state Senate also met briefly Wednesday evening to approve 149 nominations made by Justice to state boards, commissions, and other executive appointments. Instead of going through the Senate Confirmations Committee, the executive message with the nominations was taken up immediately by the Senate in a unanimous vote.

Nominations included former West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney to the state Public Service Commission, former Justice administration senior advisor Bary Cary to the West Virginia University Board of Governors, the members of the new Professional Charter School Board, members of the reconstituted Public Energy Authority made up of representatives from the West Virginia Coal Association and the Gas and Oil Association of West Virginia.

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