W.Va. House to create 100 districts of equal size

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia’s House voted overwhelmingly Monday to reorganize the state electoral map into 100 separate legislative districts, saying it will make each lawmaker more responsive and accessible. Critics say the change would cement more incumbents in office.

Currently, the House’s 100 members together represent 67 districts, and more densely populated areas have two, three, four or five delegates.

The Republican-sponsored bill, which passed 72-25 with several Democratic votes, would have lawmakers represent about 18,000 constituents each after the 2020 Census, evenly dividing the state’s nearly 1.8 million residents between them.

Two districts now have 90,000 and 72,000 constituents respectively, said Del. John Overington, a Martinsburg Republican and the bill’s lead sponsor. In smaller “neighborhood districts,” he said it’s less expensive to campaign and it’s easier for constituents to know the policy positions of a smaller group of candidates.

“You get to know people a lot better,” Overington said.

But Del. Larry Rowe, who shares a Charleston district with another Democrat and a Republican, said single-member districts “entrench incumbents.”

He also warned that West Virginia will see a lot of gerrymandering as incumbents draw new district lines for their own political advantage, unless the Legislature establishes an independent redistricting commission or some other method of drawing fair boundaries. A bill to do that, also introduced by Overington, remains in committee.

Rowe said the House currently has 47 districts with a single legislator; 35 of them are held by Republicans and 12 by Democrats.

The measure doesn’t require a constitutional change or voter approval, since the state constitution basically says it’s up to the Legislature to draw district lines for the House, said Jared Hunt, spokesman for the House Republican majority. And since the bill deals only with the makeup of House districts, little resistance is expected from the Senate or Gov. Jim Justice, he said.

In the state Senate on Monday, bills were passed to end West Virginia’s film tax credit, authorize tax credits for businesses that locate on former coal mine sites, and require private clubs licensed to sell alcohol to notify authorities when someone has a life-threatening medical emergency.

The film tax credit, for up to 31 percent of production costs in West Virginia, has a $5 million overall cap. Recent productions in West Virginia included part of the AMC Networks’ television miniseries “The American West” and the TV episode “Blood Feuds: Hatfields & McCoys” on the History channel. But with the current fiscal year more than half over, it still has more than $3 million left, and ending the program would free up more revenue to spend elsewhere.

The Senate voted 28-2 for ending it. With other states providing large tax credits for film and television production, state officials say West Virginia’s has little impact.

For former coal mine sites, the Senate bill would establish a five-year tax credit for capital investment up to the amount of its state income. The bill passed unanimously.