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State Senate will take up new version of bill that tries to raise money for emergency personnel in tourist-heavy counties

Story by David Beard, The Dominion Post

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Senate is making another go at enabling counties with lots of tourists and few residents to raise money for emergency services to accommodate all those tourists.

Bills to build housing to draw new workers to the state and to enable enhanced oil and gas recovery for horizontal wells also cleared Senate committees on Tuesday.

Senate Finance took up SB 167, which would allow any county to impose a $1 health and safety fee on a list of specified tourism and recreation activities to put toward the cost of “emergency readiness.”

Funds from the fee would go into dedicated account, and 60% would have to fund fire and EMS services, while 40% could be used to pay for critical infrastructure projects. The fee couldn’t be imposed inside a city that has an amusement tax.

The bill allows counties to seek a waiver on the 60%, to apply all of the fee revenue to critical infrastructure for up to three years.

This bill is a new version of last year’s SB 429, which died in the House, and has the same lead sponsor, Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker.

There was no discussion of the reasoning behind the bill in Finance on Tuesday, but Smith explained it last year.

Small rural counties don’t have the tax base to support the demand on services required by the influx of tourists, he said, then. Everyone supports firefighters and EMS workers, but they also need financial support.

Sen. Rupie Phillips, R-Logan, was concerned on Tuesday that the bill didn’t include any accountability measures to ensure the counties are spending the money properly. The committee adopted his amendment to require counties that enact the fee to post a spending record on the auditor’s Open Checkbook page or to report back to the Legislature.

Further tweaking on that measure is expected when the bill returns to the floor. The bill was referred to Finance on second reading – the amendment stage – and will be on second reading when it returns.

Finance also approved SB 188, the Mountain Homes Act, aimed at recruiting new workers to the state.

The bill creates the Mountain Homes Fund to provide guaranteed construction loans for residential housing projects. The project must consist of at least six residential units with a combined appraised value of $800,000. The guarantee must not exceed $400,000, and total annual guarantees may not exceed $10 million. The Legislature may appropriate funds if it chooses.

The act would take effect Jan. 1, 2025, and run to Jan. 1, 2035. The bill came to Finance from Economic Development, with changes to the introduced version each time. It goes now to the full Senate.

Senate Energy took up and approved HB 5268 in less than five minutes, without discussion.

It permits enhanced recovery of oil and gas in horizontal wells via injection of any gas or fluid, including carbon dioxide. Committee counsel said state code already allows this for vertical wells and the bill just extends it to horizontals.

Enhanced recovery uses the gas or fluids to stimulate the flow of otherwise untapped oil and gas.

The bill passed the House unanimously on Feb. 12 and goes now to the full Senate. It saw no amendments in Senate Energy and would go to the governor if passed without amendment on the Senate floor.

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