Gov. Justice signs VFD funding bill, acknowledges need for permanent funding source
Two of the three funding bills were signed into law last week
Gov. Jim Justice signed a bill for volunteer fire department funding at Point Pleasant Volunteer Fire Department in Point Pleasant, W.Va., on Aug. 22, 2023. (Office of Gov. Jim Justice | Courtesy photo)
Despite already signing two of the three bills last week, Gov. Jim Justice held a bill signing ceremony Tuesday for several pieces of legislation that provide funding for West Virginia’s volunteer fire departments.
Senate Bill 1021, a bill to create two new special revenue funds in the Department of Homeland Security for fire protection, was the only unsigned bill to get the governor’s signature on Tuesday. SB 1022 and SB 1023 put a combined $12 million toward the state’s VFDs through the funds created in SB 1021, and were signed into law by Justice on Aug. 14.
All three bills are effective from their passage on Aug. 8.
“I don’t know how we make it without our community volunteer fire departments,” Justice told first responders at the Point Pleasant Volunteer Fire Department on Tuesday. “In all honesty, I don’t know how we make it without doing more and more and more funding for our EMS and whoever it may be.”Despite requests from dozens of EMS agencies across the state, permanent funding for those first responders was not included in the Governor’s Special Session call earlier this month. Last year, Justice earmarked $10 million from coronavirus relief funds to EMS agencies statewide. The source, however, was one-time dollars.
“Have we achieved everything we want to achieve? No. And we’ve still got work to do,” Justice said, repeating an old adage from his father about achievement being more than just effort. “We’ve tried real hard and we’ve done real good and I thank the Legislature in every single way for all the stuff we’ve already done. But we’ve got to do more.”
Through amendments from the Senate during the special session, SB 1022 creates a new line item in the state’s general revenue fund for fire protection. The introduced version of the bill only directed one-time surplus money to the fund. While it’s now in code as a regular appropriation in the state budget, there is no permanent funding source outlined in the law.
During the last night of the special session, lawmakers in the House spent more than an hour arguing that the amendment from the Senate to make the funding recurring would lead to a tax increase for homeowners. They were referring to the proposal of adding a .45% surcharge to homeowner insurance policies in the state to cover the fund, which is not currently included in the law.
On Tuesday, Justice said he was against any type of tax increase to fund the new budget line.
“We’re not here to sit on the pedestal and talk about how great we are because I am telling you that we still do not have a permanent funding source. But I’ve promised you, and we’ll find a way to do that without raising taxes,” Justice said. “Our people in general hurt enough — we don’t need to raise taxes. I firmly believe that.”
Justice did not say how we would like to see the new line item funded in the future.
During this year’s regular session, House Bill 3153 died in the last hour of the 60th day due to disagreements between the House and the Senate. If that bill passed, it would have allocated more than $6 million annually to the fire protection fund from the State Lottery Commission’s unappropriated balance in the State Excess Lottery Revenue Fund.
The money would have been transferred each July and given stable funding to emergency first responders who are struggling to confront rising equipment costs and a lack of trained personnel.
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