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Senate Completes Work On Bill Boosting Economic Development, Tourism Posts To Cabinet Secretary Positions

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Under House Bill 2019, Office of Economic Development Director Mitch Carmichael (left) and Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby would be elevated to cabinet-level secretaries. The bill now awaits Gov. Jim Justice's signature, who championed the idea in his state of the state address.

The West Virginia Legislature has completed work on a bill that elevates two high-profile state government jobs to cabinet-level positions.

Members of the Senate unanimously approved House Bill 2019. The measure will elevate the director of economic development and the commissioner of tourism to cabinet secretaries within the executive branch.

House Bill 2019 was introduced at the request of Gov. Jim Justice, who championed the idea at the beginning of the legislative session during his state of the state address. During that speech, Justice noted the officials who will be immediately affected by the bill as he announced the proposal.

“I will put Mitch Carmichael in the economic development position and Chelsea Ruby in the tourism position. Mitch is stuck on ‘on.’ Everybody that knows Mitch knows he's stuck on ‘on’ all the time,” Justice said. “He could probably sell bread to starving Russians on credit. And Chelsea has done an amazing, amazing job. That's all there is to it.”

In recent weeks, former Senate President Mitch Carmichael took on the role as director in the Office of Economic Development. Chelsea Ruby has been the Commissioner of Tourism since Justice first took office in January 2017.

House Bill 2019 would carry beyond Carmichael and Ruby’s respective tenures and create departments focused on the work of both positions. The current salaries for those positions would not change as a result of the bill and no other new positions within those departments would be created.

When the bill passed the House of Delegates last week, some Democrats argued the elevation of Carmichael to the cabinet-level post was done as a favor.

But there was little discussion ahead of the measure’s passage Friday in the Senate, although a couple of lawmakers spoke briefly in favor of the bill.

“This is merely a reorganization and, really, a change in title,” said. Senate Finance Chair Eric Tarr, R-Putnam. “It doesn't really add any people to the process. It does add some significance to the titles when these people go out and represent the state of West Virginia [and are] marketing our beautiful state.”

Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Trump, R-Morgan, also spoke in favor of the measure.

Trump also championed an idea from Sen. William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, to bump the director of the Office of Drug Control to a cabinet level. Agreeing with a floor speech from Ihlenfeld on Monday, Trump said elevating that post could help combat substance use disorder in the state.

“I think he's on to an excellent idea. It's not embodied within this bill. But I did want to say publicly that I hope the governor will look at that and maybe even introduce his own bill,” Trump said.

No such legislation has so far been introduced, although Ihlenfeld told West Virginia Public Broadcasting he is planning to draft to a standalone bill to elevate the director of the Office of Drug Control Policy to a cabinet-level position.

"The substance abuse crisis has gotten worse during the pandemic — it hasn't gotten better," Ihlenfeld said Friday by phone. "We know that we need to do more in West Virginia to address this problem. This is not just a public health problem, this is also an economic problem."

A spokesperson with the governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

House Bill 2019’s passage marks the third bill completed by the Legislature so far this session. It now heads to the governor’s desk for a signature.


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