The Senate unanimously passed the bill Friday but made some changes that the House of Delegates would have to approve by Saturday night if the bill is to go to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin for his signature. Saturday is the final day of the legislative session.
Lawmakers will also have to find about $175,000 in the new state budget to staff and furnish the office.
According to the bill, the office would provide a forum to discuss issues and concerns of minority communities and develop strategies to improve the delivery of services to minorities like improving education and work opportunities and improving health.
Minority groups that would benefit from the office's efforts would include any religious or ethnic groups that make up less than 10 percent of the state's population, plus women and any other groups who have historically faced discrimination.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, about 94 percent of the state's population is white. More than half of the state's residents are female.
Delegate Charlene Marshall, D-Monongalia, said supporters of the office hope it will serve as a resource to small and minority owned businesses to give them the information they need to compete for state government contracts. She hopes the office will also encourage state agencies to track how programs and policies impact minorities.
For example, the state doesn't collect data or statistics relating to blacks especially concerning public health and disease prevalence, Marshall said.
Legislation dealing with the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry requires the state to track the gender and ethnicity of workers employed by the industry and what education and training are available to them. Similar efforts to recognize and involve minorities should be blended into other policies and legislation, said Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha.
"We need to make sure we're taking care of everybody because everybody in this state pays taxes and everybody counts," Poore said. "I'm excited to see how this can help the minorities in the state."
A state report on minorities released in 2002 recommended the creation of such an office, Poore said. The report also called on the state to address the overcrowded prisons, which house a disproportional number of black offenders compared to the general population.
A decade after the report was released, overcrowded conditions remain a problem. The governor has called for an intensive study of the state's criminal courts and corrections programs this year to reduce the projected population growth. Currently about 1,700 state offenders are housed at regional jails because of a lack of prison beds.
A bill that would begin to address the overcrowding by making changes to bail for misdemeanor charges and increasing the number of parolees among other provisions is in jeopardy heading into the last day of session. The House cut significant portions from the bill and lawmakers are running out of time to negotiate a compromise.
"We have a lot of catching up to do because of the delay," Poore said of the ten years it's taken to convince both chambers to pass the bill creating the office, which could have spearheaded efforts to tackle the prison population and justice system.
Sen. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell, said past governor's administrations balked at the idea of adding any new offices or programs to the executive branch, regardless of the purpose.
Those same concerns trickled down to legislators. How to pay for the office also has been a concern that hampered the bill's passage.
Supporters would like to receive more than just funding for salaries in order to offer a more robust office but they are happy to see the bill finally pass, Marshall said.
The office is to be named after the late Herb Henderson, a prominent black attorney from Huntington who served as president of the West Virginia NAACP.