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Lawmakers’ final 2023 meeting to focus on DHHR, West Side gas outage and more

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Lawmakers’ final 2023 meeting to focus on DHHR, West Side gas outage and more

Dec 10, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Amelia Ferrell Knisely
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Lawmakers’ final 2023 meeting to focus on DHHR, West Side gas outage and more
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The Lincoln Walks at Midnight Statue sits in front of the West Virginia state Capitol building in Charleston, W.Va. (Lexi Browning | West Virginia Watch)

State lawmakers will gather beginning Sunday in Charleston for this month’s legislative interim meetings, where they’ll focus their attention on the embattled state health department and utility companies involved in a mass Kanawha County gas outage.

The meetings will be one of the last times lawmakers will meet before the regular 60-day legislative session kicks off in January. Some of the meetings will be used to craft upcoming legislation. 

Below are issues that lawmakers will hear about during interim meetings, which run Dec. 10-12.

Health department will provide sweeping update amid ongoing problems 

The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources is finalizing its transition to three separate departments, and lawmakers will hear what is likely their last update on the split before it must be finalized by Jan. 1. Lawmakers mandated the changes earlier this year in an effort to reform DHHR, citing financial concerns and poor outcomes for vulnerable citizens in the department’s care. 

The agency has faced recent additional scrutiny over allegations that leaders intentionally deleted emails related to a lawsuit over the treatment of children in foster care. 

Lawmakers are expected to try again to address the state’s foster care crisis during the 2024 regular session. 

On Monday, the plan to discuss upcoming legislation that would allow the Legislative Oversight Commission on Health and Human Resources Accountability to go into an executive session to privately discuss particulars in foster children cases.

The proposed bill follows an incident in Kanawha County where two children were found locked in a shed months weeks after neighbors alerted Child Protective Services to the situation. 

Lawmakers have expressed outrage over the situation and called for an independent investigation into DHHR’s handling of the case. 

Committee Co-Chair Amy Summers previously said that the bill would prevent the agency from being unable to answer questions due to child privacy concerns.

Utility companies face questioning following mass Charleston gas outage

The leaders of Mountaineer Gas and West Virginia American Water will stand before lawmakers on Monday following a water main break that caused a gas outage affecting more than 1,100 customers on Charleston’s West Side. The outage, which knocked out gas heat and appliances for many customers, lasted for weeks. The situation is still not fully resolved. 

Mountaineer Gas filed a lawsuit against West Virginia American Water over the situation. In its complaint, the gas company said that the water company is responsible for damages to the gas line and the resulting interruption of gas service.

While particulars on what the presidents of both companies plan to speak about are not available, an online agenda said that the men will participate in a Q&A with lawmakers. 

Sports access for homeschool and private schools students

As the Republican supermajority has swiftly expanded school choice in West Virginia, lawmakers will hear a presentation on Sunday about sports access for private school and home school students. A 2020 state law permits homeschool students to participate in public school sports, and charter school students can join public school teams if their school doesn’t offer the sport. A 2023 state law also guaranteed students using the Hope Scholarship, the state’s education savings account program, could access public school sports and extracurricular activities. 

Lawmakers will also hear presentations on public school safety and ongoing implementation of the Third Grade Success Act, a new sweeping education bill looking to reverse West Virginia’s drastically low child reading and math rates

Farm bill important to West Virginia’s emergency food programs 

Lawmakers on the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee will hear an update on the federal 2024 farm bill, which addresses nationwide agricultural programs, conservation efforts and emergency food assistance, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. 

After Congress failed to pass the massive legislation, they opted to extend the 2018 Farm Bill, pushing their deadline to finalize the 2024 version of the legislation. The bill is crucial, according to the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, to help in-state farmers and support SNAP, which hungry residents rely on. 

State seeks federal money to prevent flooding 

Flooding is West Virginia’s most common natural disaster, and the state is planning to apply for federal money that could prevent flood wreckage rather than asking help after the damage has occurred.. The money could also help prevent flooding-related deaths.

The Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grant fund was started by the Federal Emergency Management Agency about three years ago, and lawmakers on Sunday will hear an update on the program. 

Residents living in flood-prone areas have been urged by the state to work with their local governments to apply for federal hazard mitigation grant funds. 

State lawmakers will also hear an update on jails understaffing following their efforts in a summer Special Session to address the chronic problem. State corrections officials recently shared that they’ve made progress in hiring since legislation provided additional pay and incentives for corrections officers. The state is facing a federal lawsuit over poor conditions in all of its jails, and the suit includes allegations of understaffing and overcrowding.

The legislative interim meetings will be streamed online through the state Legislature’s website