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Week nine at the Legislature

Reporter’s Notebook:

CHARLESTON– Here we are, at the end of another legislative session and looking back, I have to say it wasn’t too bad.

Sure, I’ve noted various issues and dramas over the last nine weeks. As I’ve said before, when you lock in maybe 300 people (lawmakers, staff, other government agencies, lobbyists, reporters, tourists, etc.) in a rectangular space for 60 days, you’re bound to have drama.

I told my wife the other day that the end of session is very much like the end of summer camp. People are saying their goodbyes, exchanging addresses, promising to stay friends and write to each other, weeping, etc. I don’t mean to make light as much as I’m trying to find a way to explain what day 60 of the session is like.

I was a bit taken aback by how many lawmakers are not returning, particularly in the House of Delegates. I lost count of the goodbye speeches and who was making them, but at least two House districts are losing all of their representatives. I estimate the House is losing nearly 20 percent of its members to retirements or members running for other offices.

Whoever wins the statehouse elections, the House is going to lose a lot of senior members and a lot of historical knowledge.

•••

While all leaving members of the House and Senate got to say their goodbyes, I think all agree that the way House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, got to leave was classy.

Miley, a former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee himself and a former Speaker of the House before the Republicans took the majority in the House in 2015, got to take the podium one last time and preside over the House, with House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, taking his seat on the floor. Miley’s staff even brought out his metal placard with his old title. Speaking to me afterward, Miley said he was completely taken by surprise.

“I was thrown a curveball by the classy move by Speaker Hanshaw. I had no idea why he was calling me up there,” Miley said. “I was really floored by that and honored by that move. It kind of threw me off the speech I wanted to give.”

As for Shott, who is normally a quiet fellow, he insisted on yielding his time for his goodbye speech in order to keep bills moving, which was also a very classy move. He was given time after the session ended at midnight Saturday to say his goodbye.

•••

When the history of this session is written, the foster care bill will likely be the bill people remember.

There was a real chance the House Bill 4092 might not make it. It took nearly three weeks for the House Finance Committee to find the $16.9 million for the increased reimbursement rates for foster and kinship families. Then the bill sat for a long time in the Senate before they reduced the amount to $4.9 million and chose to set up a tiered foster system to direct funding to the most needy — foster children with disabilities and older children.

Basically, the House and Senate were trying to solve the same problem in two different ways. The House was adamant about keeping the $16.9 million. The Senate was committed to the tiered system. Thanks to Gov. Jim Justice and the Department of Revenue and Department of Health and Human Resources, a way was made to combine both and House and Senate positions.

The one concern is will the DHHR use that money to change the reimbursement rates or try to use that money for other things. However, DHHR put it in writing to a letter to lawmakers. There will be increased floors for foster child placement agencies and individual foster families, as well as more money for the kinship families – mostly grandparents.

At last count, there were more than 7,000 children in foster placement in West Virginia. If it’s true that we’ll see a decrease for 2019 overdose death numbers, we could well be turning a corner hopefully.

We have more resources for substance abuse treatment than ever before (though we still need more). We have plenty of new legislation to help recovering addicts train for new jobs and clean up any criminal records to give these people second chances. Between DHHR and the court system, more resources are being brought to bear to keep children with their families. I predict in the next few years we’ll see our foster care placements decrease.

HB 4092 was the one bill that brought everyone together – advocates and lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats. It’s truly a sign we can all work together to solve a problem and work collaboratively and in a bipartisan manner.

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