By Pamela Pritt
A bill designed to help small businesses dealing with emergency situations passed the House of Delegates Thursday.
The Small Business Emergency Act allows the director of Homeland Security and the secretaries of Commerce and Revenue to establish criteria for each emergency as it is declared by the governor, and gives very little legislative guidance.
The bill, which was fast-tracked in response to last week’s chemical spill in the Elk River watershed, allows those agencies to establish loans, delay tax deadlines and make other financial considerations for small businesses affected by emergency situations. It also allows the state to recover monies from those small businesses if they win lawsuits from a third party that is deemed liable for the emergency.
Kanawha County Delegate Doug Skaff said no one could have predicted the recent crisis, which affected 300,000 West Virginia American Water customers when 7,500 gallons of a coal-cleaning chemical leaked into the Elk just above West Virginia American Water’s intake. Skaff, a Democrat, said the bill would not only help employers, but also individuals who couldn’t work during the crisis.
“Imagine you can’t go to work for something that you couldn’t control,” Skaff said. Businesses are expected to make their payroll and pay their taxes like nothing happened, he said.
We are not telling the state how to support the businesses; we are giving them a road map, Skaff continued.
Skaff’s Kanawha County colleague on the other side of the aisle, Republican Delegate Patrick Lane, said the bill will help businesses get back to normal, noting that the state’s economy is “really driven” by businesses that have five employees or fewer.
Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, asked about a funding source for the bill.
Finance Committee chair Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, said no funding source is specified, but the bill gives the governor the opportunity to “look in the toolbox,” which could include money from the Rainy Day Fund. Boggs said the Small Business Committee purposely “didn’t want to pick winners and losers” from emergency to emergency.
If the federal government declares a state of emergency, then West Virginia could recoup money from federal disaster funds.
Delegate Nancy Guthrie, D-Kanawha, said businesses in the region were “imprisoned by a corporate malfeasance.”
“And we’re going to pay for it,” Guthrie continued. “We’re going to be citing this particular tragedy for years.”
The bill passed the House 97-0, with three absent members, and will move to the Senate.