Legislature passes 8 bills in special session, creates new department of arts and culture

May 22, 2018 GMT

CHARLESTON - The West Virginia Legislature wrapped up its special session Monday, spending less than two full days to pass eight bills.

The biggest bill was House Bill 101, which created the Department of the Arts, History, and Culture.

Gov. Jim Justice signed a bill in March eliminating the Department of Education and the Arts, sending some of its duties to other state agencies, such as the Center for Professional Development to the Department of Education. That came after Justice fired department secretary Gayle Manchin, wife of Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin.

Under the latest bill, the commissioner of culture and history will become the curator of arts, culture and history and report directly to the governor.

Some delegates expressed confusion as to how the move saves the state money, which was the purported purpose of eliminating the original department, saying it seemed like the curator just replaced the secretary position in name. But Del. Paul Espinosa, chair of the House Education Committee, said by removing the secretary position, it eliminates the middle man.

Espinosa said the governor estimates the change will save the state $2 million a year.

Another sticking point for some delegates Monday was confusion regarding the state’s independent Library Commission and the Educational Broadcasting Authority, which are placed under the umbrella of the curator. Espinosa assured the House the two agencies would remain independent, but some delegates wished they had more time to be sure.

Del. Matt Rohrbach, R-Cabell, broke with party because he said he thinks the bill needed to be fleshed out a little more, particularly to note the advantages or disadvantages of adding the Library Commission under the new department. He said he received emails from the Library Commission with concerns that he was never able to get addressed.

“It was kind of sprung on us at the last second and I think it’s a reasonably big decision that was probably not best done in an afternoon with no committee oversight,” Rohrbach said.

Del. Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, agreed. Hornbuckle said he probably would have voted for the bill if that issue could have been cleared up.

The bill creating the Department of Arts, Culture and History was approved 73-20 by the House of Delegates and 28-1 by the state Senate.

The legislature also passed a bill that will allow the families of two Pratt volunteer firefighters who were killed in the line of duty in March to benefit from increased survivor benefits approved during the regular session. The legislature made the bill’s provisions retroactive, and cleared up some other issues within the bill.

“Our volunteer firefighters are vital to the safety and protection of communities across West Virginia, giving freely of themselves to help us in our times of greatest need,” said House Speaker Tim Armstead. “This bill makes sure that the families of those brave individuals who paid the ultimate sacrifice back in March receive the full benefits of Senate Bill 625.”

The Legislature also passed a couple of supplemental appropriations bills and a handful of bills to modify legislation passed during the regular session.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.