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W.Va. House panel passes Future Fund bill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Legislation that would create a Future Fund to set aside assets from the anticipated Marcellus Shale natural gas production boom moved a step closer to passage Monday, advancing from the House Judiciary Committee with only minor changes.

The brainchild of Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, and based on a similar program in North Dakota, the bill (SB461) would set aside 25 percent of oil and natural gas severance taxes in excess of $175 million, to be put into a fund that could be used after 2020 for economic development, infrastructure, educational enhancement or workforce development projects.

Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, amended the bill Monday to also allow the funds to be used for cultural or historical improvements or preservation.

"We need to recognize our historical and cultural institutions are what's going to draw people into West Virginia," he told the committee.

Delegate Justin Marcum, D-Mingo, said it was unfortunate that past Legislatures had not set up a similar fund to take advantage of coal booms of the past.

"Legislatures of the past missed the same opportunity to do this with the coal severance tax," he said.

Some delegates raised concerns about setting aside funding in the middle of a state budget crunch, but Marcum said estimates are that the fund will start out modestly, at about $350,000 in 2015 and growing to $18 million by 2017.

The legislation requires votes to pass a referendum creating a Future Fund amendment to the state constitution. The resolution for the amendment (SJR13) is pending in House Judiciary.

The Future Fund bill goes to House Finance Committee, where Chairman Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, said he plans to put it on the committee agenda soon.

Also Monday, House Judiciary:

  • Advanced without amendment a bill to set up rules for regulating the Rural Rehabilitation Loan program administered by the Department of Agriculture (SB350).
  • The bill was prompted by a legislative audit that found numerous discrepancies and mismanagement with the administration of the $5 million revolving loan fund under former Commissioner Gus Douglass.

    The audit found numerous problems, including lack of internal controls, lack of documentation of loans, conflicts of interest including awarding loans to department employees and to relatives, insufficient collateral, and loans for nonagricultural purposes.

    The bill sets up a series of rules aimed at those deficiencies. It also goes to House Finance.

  • Advanced legislation sought by the Division of Motor Vehicles to extend renewal periods for driver's licenses from five to eight years, and to allow the division to set up electronic renewals at its website (SB431).
  • DMV Commissioner Steve Dale said the legislation would save the DMV about $560,000 a year, as the reduced workload would allow the division to eliminate about 19 full-time positions.

    It would also allow the DMV to charge an additional $10 fee for federal Real ID-compliant licenses, to offset the higher cost of producing those licenses.

    Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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