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Crossover Day: West Virginia House members drag out debates on bills | News, Sports, Jobs

Members of the West Virginia House of Delegates worked from morning to evening Wednesday passing 32 bills to get them over the Crossover Day deadline. (Photo courtesy of WV Legislative Photography)

CHARLESTON — While contentious debates over bills in the West Virginia Senate were few and far between, the House of Delegates broke out in several debates over multiple bills, dragging out Crossover Day nearly into the early evening Wednesday.

The House passed 31 bills in time for Crossover Day Wednesday when bills must be passed and sent to the state Senate. Lawmakers have until midnight Saturday, March 12, to pass bills and send them to Gov. Jim Justice for his signature on him.

Debate and discussion of bills took sometimes as much as an hour or more depending on the bill. Some of the bills resulting in lengthy debate included House Bill 2910, a bill to modify the allowable number of magistrate judges per county. The bill passed 66-29.

HB 2910 would establish factors for allocating magistrates to counties every 10 years based on a county’s population and the caseload of magistrates in the county starting in 2024. No one county could have less than two magistrates, but the bill could result in some counties losing magistrates and some counties gaining magistrates. The bill would cap the number of magistrates in the state at the current level of 158 magistrates.

An amendment to HB 2910 approved by delegates Wednesday would also require the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals to develop a rule to create a system that would allow a magistrate to preside over certain cases on a circuit or regional basis. Del. John Hardy, R-Berkeley, said the bill would help growing parts of the state where magistrates are swamped with cases without additional magistrates to help shoulder the caseload.

“I believe that the time is right. I believe the policy is a step in the right direction,” Hardy said. “It’s been far too long, 25 years since we have reallocated or taken another look at our magistrates. We know there have been huge shifts in population in the state. We know what certain areas of the state are underserved and access to justice is being denied.”

Del. Cody Thompson, D-Randolph, said HB 2910 would result in several southern West Virginia counties and rural counties losing magistrates.

“Reducing them by one is really going to overload their workload,” Thompson said. “When we start reducing the number of magistrates, it’s not going to work. We’re going to have major problems when it comes to our judicial system … I can’t agree with it, and I won’t vote for it.”

House Bill 4293 would make it a crime for any person or election official to mail or deliver an application for an absentee ballot to any voter except when specifically requested by that voter. The bill passed 72-22.

HB 4293 makes it a misdemeanor to knowingly and intentionally mail or deliver an absentee ballot application without a specific request by a voter. While election officials are completely prohibited, a person is limited to 10 applications for mailing or delivery. Both a person or election official could face a $500 fine if convicted or imprisoned for up to six months.

“There has been a history of voter fraud and a history with election integrity. On that basis, I think this is a really, really great bill,” said Del. Chris Pritt, R-Kanawha. “I think it is going to put us in a really good position. It’s going to send an example to the rest of the nation as to what election integrity looks like.”

“The ultimate hypocrisy is politicians in this body, elected officials, are worried about leaving people alone in sending out an unsolicited application for a ballot,” said House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, in speaking against the bill. “Do you do the same thing when you send direct mailers to people with your mugs on them saying ‘please vote for me’? No, you send unsolicited junk mail all the time. And you want to make it a crime to send something actually productive that’s a public document.”

House Bill 4336, providing for the valuation of natural resources property, passed 65-29, with a bipartisan group of several Republican and Democratic delegates representing natural gas-producing counties voting no.

HB 4336 would provide a revised and more specific methodology to the State Tax Department for valuing property producing oil, natural gas, and natural gas liquids for property tax assessments, fixing a bill passed last year and addressing a legislative rule rejected in January from the State Tax Department that provided an assessment formula that lawmakers disagreed with.

The bill would require the State Tax Commissioner to develop a revised methodology to value oil and natural gas properties based on the fair market value based on a yield capitalization model. Net proceeds would come from the actual gross receipts on a sales volume basis and the actual price received as reported on the taxpayer’s return once royalties and annual operating costs are subtracted from gross receipts.

“The bill is a compromise effort to soften the blow to counties for moving to actual receipts, actual expenses,” said Del. Diana Graves, R-Kanawha, who worked on this bill and last year’s bill.

Graves said she involved Northern Panhandle state senators, the State Tax Department, and consulted with the Wetzel County Assessor’s office. House Finance Committee Chairman Vernon Criss, R-Wood, said HB 4336 would put the state in compliance with a 2019 West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals decision that determined the way the state assessed natural gas-producing property was unfair.

“It’s not fair to one of the oldest industries in the state that they’ve played by the rules, they’ve made their appeals, they were told they were OK on their appeals, and now we don’t want to play the game ,” Criss said. “If you want us to continue to be in the oil and gas business in this state, you need to be fair to them and we’re not being fair to them right now.”

But several delegates from natural gas-producing counties spoke against the bill, citing lack of data on how much the new formulation could hurt county budgets and county school system budgets.

“I think it is really important that we’re fair … but we don’t have a fiscal note, we don’t know how this is going to impact our communities,” said Del. Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall. “I’m happy that the (natural) gas prices are up and we know it’s going to be a surplus this year, but what about next year? There are just too many unknowns with this.”

“I’m concerned that if we continue down this path, then some other out-of-state entity might come in here and want to build … and then say ‘we’re not being taxed right. We need to fix this.’ Then we’ll be back here all over again,” said Del. David Kelly, R-Tyler. “We need to be careful. It’s a slippery slope that we’re on.”

The House passed other bills, including: HB 4001, the broadband regulation bill; HB 4020, splitting the Department of Health and Human Resources into two cabinet departments; and HB 4320, which would allow natural immunity or antibodies to any illness to be considered equal or better than vaccine-induced immunity.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com

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