House passes bill to help businesses in water crisis
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The House of Delegates moved swiftly Thursday to pass legislation intended to provide financial relief to small businesses that lost income after last week's chemical spill and "do not use" water order.
Next up: House members vowed to expedite a bill to help hourly workers who lost wages during the water crisis.
"We have individuals who live payday to payday who may have to decide whether to buy groceries or maybe a new hot water tank," said Delegate David Walker, D-Clay. "I would hope we could do something for them."
Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, said legislative leaders planned to introduce legislation to help individual workers.
"I've received assurances that we're going to deal with an opportunity for individuals to have some sort of recovery, some sort of relief," Lane said. "We look forward to helping individuals, as well."
Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, said West Virginia would be able to apply for federal unemployment disaster assistance. "Any individual should be able to obtain that relief," he said.
State lawmakers said helping small businesses was the first step in helping workers.
"If we can get the economy back cranking in these counties as quickly as possible by making sure these small businesses are open ... people are able to go to work," Lane said. "It helps everyone."
House members voted 97-0 to pass the small business relief legislation (HB4175) Thursday, after lawmakers suspended rules so they could rush through the bill.
The legislation -- the first bill designed to address the fallout from the chemical spill -- will allow businesses to apply for grants and low-interest loans. Business also may be allowed to defer payment of taxes to the state.
The legislation specifies that only the "most vulnerable of businesses" should qualify for financial assistance. The bill doesn't define what size companies will be eligible.
"I have had people say to me, without assistance, they will not be able to open their business," said House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha. "We cannot allow this crisis to result in businesses closing down for good."
The legislation directs the governor and state homeland security director to establish rules for distributing funds to small businesses during a "state of emergency." There's no mention how the program would be funded. Legislators suggested the governor might tap the state's Rainy Day Fund.
"It would just give the governor ... the ability to look at the nature of the emergency, what the state might be able to do in a fiscally responsible manner," said House Finance Chairman Brett Boggs, D-Braxton. "It sets up a framework."
Under the bill, small businesses also would be eligible for financial help after future disasters -- not just the chemical spill -- during a "state of emergency." The bill now goes to the Senate. It will take effect immediately after the Senate passes it and the governor signs it into law.
Delegate Nancy Guthrie, D-Kanawha, accused Freedom Industries, the company responsible for the massive chemical spill that left 300,000 people without tap water, of "corporate malfeasance."
"People you expect to be responsible and to be good corporate neighbors just screwed up your entire water system, and now we're going to pay for it," Guthrie said. "We're going to be acting on this particular tragedy, this spill, for years."
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com or 304-348-4869.