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West Virginia lawmakers set to return to Capitol for session

January 7, 2020 GMT

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Banning discrimination against LGBTQ West Virginians. Changing the bail system to send fewer people to jail. Cutting taxes for businesses.

West Virginia lawmakers in the GOP-controlled statehouse are expected to take up those proposals and more as they start the 2020 legislative session Wednesday in Charleston.

Senate and House of Delegates members have been at the Capitol this week for committee meetings, outlining and refining potential legislation. One of the subjects that has generated interest is a proposal to explicitly bar sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination when it comes to housing, employment and public spaces.

Similar proposals have been introduced here for many years, said Andrew Schneider, executive director of Fairness West Virginia, an activist group pushing for the bill. He said he think this is the year it will pass.

“Legislators see that this is an opportunity for West Virginia,” Schneider said in an interview. “We need to make it clear to outsiders that West Virginia is a warm, welcoming, inclusive place.”

Last month, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, a Republican, drew criticism from his primary election challenger, Del. Jim Butler, for participating in a discussion about the measure with Fairness West Virginia and others.

Butler issued a statement saying “these special protection bills are not only in conflict with the West Virginia Republican Party Platform, but more importantly, they are in conflict with the values of the vast majority of West Virginians.” In an interview, he maintained he was worried such a bill would encourage frivolous lawsuits.

Carmichael, widely thought to be in support of the bill for his presence at the round table discussion, made his position clear at an event held by the state press association last week.

“Hold on, let me just get this real quick,” he said, grabbing a microphone. “I have not come out in support of this legislation. I just want to clarify that. I am evaluating the various options as it relates to ensuring that we adhere to a non-discrimination policy in West Virginia.”

Also on the agenda this session, according to Carmichael and Republican House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, is a desire to overhaul the state’s bail system. The legislative leaders said counties are financially struggling to house a glut of pretrial inmates in local jails.

Neither Hanshaw nor Carmichael laid out specific policy proposals on bail, but both said they were open to hearing all potential options, with the House speaker adding that he’s interested in a full review of the state’s criminal drug statutes.

There is also a renewed effort to phase out a tax on manufacturing machinery and equipment, with Carmichael labeling the tax as a job killer. The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy says eliminating the tax on business machinery and equipment would result in a loss of $135 million.

Republican Gov. Jim Justice is set to detail his policy proposals in his annual State of the State speech Wednesday night.