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The West Virginia House of Delegates advanced a bill Tuesday morning creating a loan fund for the state Economic Development Authority to be used for certain development projects.

Senate Bill 2001 was the top special session priority for Gov. Jim Justice, who asked lawmakers to consider and pass the bill giving the state development board the ability to leverage as much as $600 million to attract private companies that want to invest in economic development projects in West Virginia. The money would come from the state’s projected billion-dollar budget surplus at the end of the fiscal year.

The bill passed 76-6, with Delegates Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, Joe Jeffries, R-Putnam, Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, Chris Pritt, R-Kanawha, and Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, voting against. Eighteen delegates were absent for the vote Tuesday.

The bill includes a provision requiring the development authority to submit an annual report to the governor and Legislature addressing the status of each of these projects, along with other financial data related to the project.

The Republican majority shot down one amendment to the bill, offered by Delegates Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, and Evan Worrell, R-Cabell, that would have required the state to publish job creation and residency information for the jobs created by these economic development projects, along with the original data reporting requirements.

Lovejoy said the amendment may seem small because it deals with additional reporting, but it would ensure West Virginians can see how many jobs were created by the projects, and where the workers who are employed by these companies live.

“If we’re going to spend this taxpayer money toward these economic projects — which is a good thing — we should at least look at the data,” Lovejoy said. “Most importantly, where do the workers reside?”

The amendment failed on a 56-22 vote, with Delegates John Mandt, R-Cabell, Chris Phillips, R-Barbour, Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, McGeehan and Worrell joining Democrats in support. Twenty-two delegates were absent for the vote.

On the legislation itself, McGeehan objected to the last line in the bill, which puts restrictions on public records requests related to these projects. He said the state is avoiding legislative oversight of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars beyond the basic information the Economic Development Authority and the private companies are required to report. He said there could be important materials in these deals both those entities don’t want the public to see.

“Perhaps that material is promises, or quid pro quos, made between targeted private enterprises and this government board,” McGeehan said.

McGeehan also spoke against Justice asking lawmakers to approve this bill in just two days. He said if lawmakers wanted to pass a bill of this magnitude, they should put it through a year-long process throughout interims.

The bill was referred to the House Finance Committee on Monday, but the committee passed the original bill out without changes.

Delegate Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell, said investments like the Nucor plant showed him that West Virginia has a compelling story to sell businesses. He urged lawmakers to support the bill, saying the state has the funds to attract industry, but the development authority needs the tools to lure them.

“This bill is a further attempt to get out and get about the business of selling that story and getting jobs and development for the people,” he said. “I think this is a major step forward for the state of West Virginia.”

The bill now heads to the governor’s desk after advancing out of the Senate unanimously on Monday.

The House and Senate adjourned sine die from the special session on Tuesday. The next interim session is scheduled for May 22-24 at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

Joe Severino covers politics. He can be reached at 304-348-4814 or Follow @jj_severino on Twitter.

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