2021 West Virginia Legislative Session Wrap-up
Despite the lack of access to the capital this year, we were able to reach out to legislators and make an impact. Here is a brief synopsis of some key issues we impacted this year. The legislature will be having a special session this summer regarding reapportionment of legislative districts following the final release of the US Census. In addition. the Governor has suggested a special session changing the personal income taxes if he can reach consensus with legislative leaders.
State Funding – Division of Forestry
We supported additional funding for the Division of Forestry. Our effort to help were rewarded when the legislature and Governor passed a significant increase for 2021 and an increase in the base funding for the upcoming year. The Division of Forestry was one of only a handful of agencies to receive increased funding. During the pandemic, state funding from timber sales on state forests were delayed and sales were suspended. This supplemental funding is critical to have the Division of Forestry continue to operate and support ongoing logger training, issue timber license and harvesting permits, and assist in critical insect and disease monitoring along with the many programs the Division operates, including forest fire protection.
One specific bill was targeted to move all “special revenues” such as state timber sales, state park revenue, and even permit fees from the agency collecting the receipts and place into the general revenue of the state. This would require agencies that use these funds to operate to come back and ask for a supplemental appropriation from the legislature. WVFA opposed this as being just an unnecessary step to use these receipts for their intended purpose. We were able to obtain enough opposition in the committee that all these agency special revenues were removed from the final bill and thus a great yet quiet success.
WVFA has spent months working with West Virginia officials to assess the potential for changes in workers’ compensation for the logging sector. West Virginia is at the top of the highest rates in the US, making it very difficult for loggers to compete with surrounding states.
We will also continue to pursue attention to the broad form liability issue, often referred to as deliberate intent, to find ways to reform this law that puts every logger and landowner at great risk of liability. Despite having a bill introduced by Delegate Hott to rectify this issue, we were unable to gain momentum to advance the bill this year. We will continue to pursue this until we get it resolved.
Some good news was there is a new Appellate Court established by the legislature. This Court will be a venue for expediting workers’ compensation cases and our hope is this begins to address our long-standing concerns over “deliberate intent” cases.
Board of Forester Registration
Despite our opposition in public hearings and before both House and Senate Committees, legislation nearly passed to sunset the Board in 2022. This was part of an effort to eliminate many independent boards for other professions. We successfully amended the legislation to require the State Forester to establish a list of foresters and forest technicians that meet specific qualifications. The details would be worked out through a rule making process, with final consideration by the 2022 legislative session. However, the legislation, as amended, was pulled from a final vote on the last day of session. Although this certainly was a good outcome, we expect this will be on the horizon again next year.
Great news of one success this year. Initial notices indicated a 20% increase in 2021 tax rates were sent to participants in this important program that taxes forests based on use as a managed forest. We worked with all agencies and authorities to find a way to modify this increase and look at improved ways to reduce to the wide swings in tax rates year to year. We were able to find a way to modify the initial increase for a reduction and more importantly a commitment to work on revising the arcane rule governing the program. We will begin working with the Tax Commissioner this summer to develop a new rule that better reflects the value and costs of growing trees on long rotations.
Tax reform dominated the Session. Governor Justice made this his top priority while the House and Senate developed alternative reforms. Despite many listening session, and a publicly broadcast “tax summit” with the Governor, House, and Senate leadership the last week of session, an agreement was elusive. The Governor may call a special session if he is able to reach some compromise with the House of Delegates.
COVID-19 Pandemic Challenges
Probably one of the most significant laws this year was a liability protection for businesses from lawsuits related to employees and customers infected by COVID. We will never know how much this saved, but with the availability of vaccines by mid-April we hope this disease is slowed down soon.
Congressional action on COVID relief includes significant resources for businesses and individuals.
Second round SBA Payroll Protection Program for businesses that experienced a 25% decline in revenue in any quarter during 2020 from 2019 with streamlined forgiveness for loans less than $150,000.
A new Logging and Trucking Program through USDA may provide up to $200 million for logging and log trucking businesses than experience a 10% loss in revenue in 2020 from 2019. USDA will be making a rule soon and we will be informing our logging and trucking member show to access this funding. Since this is a new program and many loggers and log truckers may not be familiar with USDA and the Farm Service Agency (FSA), who will be tasked with the program, WVFA and FSA have already been in conversations to assist in getting details out to the industry.
Monongahela National Forest
Senator Joe Manchin met with WVFA regarding improving the harvesting on the Monongahela National Forest. Senator Manchin is the Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee with oversight on national forests. The senator is very familiar with the need and benefits of increased harvesting to both the industry and the local community and committed to working us and the US Forest Service in the year ahead.