Religious freedom, PEIA rate increases, and new hope for tax relief dominate week seven of the legislative session

By Matthew Young, RealWV

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – With only 13 days remaining in the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers are beginning their final charge toward March 11. And while week seven seemingly advanced the 86th Legislature’s burgeoning legacy of controversy, week eight offers the tiniest hope of a unified tax relief plan. 

On Monday, the Senate Education Committee advanced a bill that would allow the teaching of “intelligent design” – a theory which states that the universe was created by an omnipotent deity –  in public classrooms. 

As Senate Counsel Hank Hager explained it, SB 619 – sponsored by Sen. Amy Grady, R-Mason – “Simply allows teachers in public schools, including public charter schools, to teach ‘intelligent design’ as a theory of how the universe and/or humanity came to exist.”

Although Grady sponsored the bill, SB 619 is the product of a 15-year-old high school student who was inspired after reading a pseudoscience-novel titled “Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design,” by Stephen C. Meyer. 

Despite ACLU-WV Advocacy Director Eli Baumwell advising the committee that the teaching of religious beliefs in public schools is a direct violation of student’s constitutionally-protected rights, members were sufficiently compelled by the testimony of the high school sophomore (the only testimony heard in support of the bill), and adopted SB 619. On Saturday, it passed the full Senate by a vote of 27 to six.

Meeting of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 22.

On Tuesday, the House Committee on Economic Development and Tourism advanced HB 3314, a bill intended to provide funding for “localized infrastructure development projects through potential tax increases.” On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee advanced HB 3271, allowing for the use of “audio recording devices” in school bathrooms used by special-needs children. Also on Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Economic Development voted in favor of the creation of the “West Virginia-Ireland Trade Commission,” in the hopes of advancing bi-lateral trade and other mutual interests. And on Thursday, the Senate Committee on Government Organization advanced legislation which would establish “locality pay differentials” for correctional officers. 

The House Judiciary Committee, on Friday, held a public hearing for citizens to express their concerns regarding HB 3042, the “Equal Protection for Religion Act.” Sponsored by Del. Jonathan Pinson, R-Mason, HB 3042 is intended to prohibit “excessive government limitations on exercise of religion.”

While nearly 40 residents appeared to express their opposition, the bill did have two supporters in attendance. One of whom, Dr. Timothy Holtsclaw, said, “I’m excited about this bill.”

Members of the public await their turn to address their concerns regarding the “Equal Protection for Religion Act” during the House Judiciary Committee’s public hearing on Friday, Feb. 24.

“This bill is not about discrimination of race,” Holtsclaw noted. “It is not about the discrimination of gender. It is about the constitutional-right we all have to the pursuit of happiness and our worship.”

Another speaker, Rose Winland, felt differently. 

 “Just yesterday, a group of Muslims gathering peacefully on our Capitol steps were jeered at… by legislators,” Winland said. “This religious freedom ends where my freedom from your religion begins. It doesn’t need to be restored. It needs to be respectful and reciprocal.” 

“Do better than you’ve been doing,” Winland told the legislators in attendance. “Vote ‘no’ this time, for Christ’s sake.”

HB 3042 is scheduled for third reading in the House Chamber on Monday.

Also on Friday, House Judiciary advanced HB 3270, a “compromise-version” of a bill seeking to cap the financial compensation an employee may receive for intentional damage or injury caused by their employer. On Saturday, the full House voted to allow indoor tobacco smoking (HB 3341), while the Senate passed bills both increasing the salaries of state employees (SB 423), and increasing PEIA premiums (SB 268), respectively.  

Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, addresses Senate Minority Leader Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, in the Senate Chamber on Saturday, Feb. 25.

And finally, on Saturday, Gov. Jim Justice released the following statement regarding the possibility of tax relief for residents of West Virginia:

“I am extremely happy that after weeks of negotiations with all parties we’ve been able to reach a deal with the House and Senate that will be the largest tax cut in West Virginia history. This deal returns over $750 million to hardworking West Virginians through a major cut to our personal income tax, rebate of the car tax, a 50% rebate of the property tax on machinery and inventory to small businesses, and tax credits to West Virginia Veterans. It also puts us on a pathway toward the complete elimination of our personal income tax. It’s a win-win for all West Virginians and I couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome.”

“I applaud the House and Senate for all their hard work,” Justice added. “I am hopeful that both bodies pass it quickly, so that we can all celebrate its signing together very soon.”

RealWV will provide continuing updates throughout the remainder of the legislative session. 

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