CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- From the Legislature's perspective, the nine-county water emergency provided focus for a session that otherwise seemed destined to meander its way through 60 days without clear direction.
While the governor's State of the State address generally sets the course for the legislative session -- last year, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin set public school reforms and the Justice Reinvestment Act to reduce prison overcrowding and help inmates assimilate back into society as the major goals -- his 2014 address was lacking in any initiatives.
With revenue shortfalls and elections looming for members of the House and half of the Senate, the likelihood for bold, new initiatives coming out of the 2014 session was looking dismal.
Then, the chemical spill and water emergency arrived to fill the void, with numerous public hearings, and by my count, at least a dozen bills introduced to address concerns raised by the incident.
By all accounts, the legislation now on the Senate floor to require registration, inspection and regulation of above-ground chemical storage tank farms, and to require public water systems to develop emergency plans to respond to contamination of their water sources (SB373) makes positive changes to state law.
Conversely, a bill that unanimously passed the House and is currently in a Senate Economic Development subcommittee to aid small businesses affected by the water emergency (HB4175) is pretty much just for show.
As currently drafted, the bill says that in states of emergency, the governor is authorized to determine what sorts of resources are available to assist affected businesses, and determine criteria for awarding grants, loans, waivers of tax payments, or whatever other assistance is available.
In other words, it basically gives the governor authority to do things he could already do to assist businesses during states of emergency.
My understanding is the bill, which passed the House on Jan. 16, is being held up in the Senate to allow time to look at ways to provide relief to employees of businesses forced to close during the water emergency.
While it's doubtful that four to five days of lost business will force any businesses in the affected area to go under, for employees -- particularly those in the restaurant and hospitality industries -- four to five days without pay is a serious hit.
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