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Proposal caught in gun debate

Home rule
Apr. 09, 2013 @ 12:29 AM

CHARLESTON -- A proposal to continue what's been deemed a successful experiment in granting more local control to West Virginia cities and towns faces a House of Delegates amendment that would repeal a handful of municipal gun control ordinances, after Senate leaders idled a stand-alone repeal bill.

The House is considering a Senate-passed measure to extend a home rule pilot program. With government power largely centered at the state level, the pilot so far has allowed four of West Virginia's biggest cities to streamline business rules, reduce blight and improve their finances. As amended by the House Government Organization Committee last week, the home rule bill would renew the pilot for another five years and allow additional municipalities to apply to join.

Delegate Patrick Lane has proposed adding the repeal language to the bill. The Kanawha County Republican helped a nearly unanimous House pass legislation targeting gun ordinances in several cities including Charleston, the state capital and a home rule participant. But with the regular session ending Saturday, Senate leaders have expressed little interest in taking up the repeal measure.

"This amendment just gives us an opportunity to once again express to the Senate how important this is" to the House, Lane said Monday.

The House Government Organization Committee included a provision in the home rule bill barring any participating municipality from seeking to restrict the carrying of a firearm. State law already forbids county or local gun ordinances. The stalled repeal measure removes exceptions allowed when that law was enacted while making clear that only state government can regulate firearms.

With Lane's proposal pending, House leaders have moved the home rule extension off the active schedule for considering bills for passage. Alarmed by that status as the session winds down and favoring the committee's approach, the West Virginia Municipal League opposes Lane's amendment, President Lisa Dooley said Monday.

"(The repeal measure) has nothing to do with home rule, and has everything to do with a vote that came out of the House," Dooley said. "The two are so different... Each should stand on its own."

Dooley said her group supports the House committee's other changes to the bill. That amendment also adds marriage and divorce ordinances to the list of areas off-limits for the home rule experiment. That roster already includes annexation, pensions, gas drilling and other natural resource extraction, crimes and punishments, and anything that violates the state or U.S. constitutions.

The Senate-passed version had limited the renewed pilot to the four participating cities -- Huntington, Wheeling, Bridgeport and Charleston -- and up to 10 more. The House committee's amendment removes that cap, while still requiring cities and towns to hold public hearings with advance notice both before they apply and then to submit their home rule plan if they're accepted.

Huntington officials have praised the pilot program since it became law in 2007, saying it has streamlined administrative functions, strengthened fee collections and aided in the demolition of dilapidated structures. Huntington also has used the pilot program to modify its tax structure. In January 2012, the city implemented a 1 percent sales tax and eliminated or cut in half the business and occupation tax for certain businesses.

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said Monday night the measure has now shifted, in his opinion, to an economic development bill.

"I don't like them messing with the home rule bill. We need this bill," Williams said, following Monday's Huntington City Council meeting. "What will happen locally, if we lose this, is that business taxes will increase by more than $5 million a year because we'll be forced to reimpose the B&O taxes."

Williams said he doesn't believe the gun provision will become part of the final bill.

"If they are intent on running with it, then we've got to find a compromise somewhere," he said.

Delegate Kelli Sobonya is a vocal foe of home rule. The Cabell County Republican has proposed several amendments to the pending measure, including one to prevent any tax-like fee that would apply to non-residents. The bill's off-limits list already includes ordinances affecting people or property outside a city or town's boundaries, except when they're already allowed by state law or legal rulings. The state Supreme Court last decade upheld Charleston's user fee, charged to anyone who works there.

The bill also restricts tax changes to the enactment of a sales tax of up to 1 percent, but only in exchange for cutting or eliminating a business and occupation tax. Huntington had sought to replace its user fee with a 1 percent occupation tax through home rule, prompting a lawsuit. The city has since elected a new mayor, who led a unanimous city council to repeal the targeted tax last month.

The sales tax allowed under the pending bill could not apply to vehicle fuel, and would be repealed automatically if the municipality restored its business and occupation tax.

A legislative audit released in November declared the pilot a success, and recommended extending it to all cities with more than 2,500 residents. The audit report counted 14 ordinances enacted fully and another six in part through the experiment. Five of these local-control changes are now available statewide, including five adopted by the Legislature. Another amendment from Sobonya, who opposed most of those changes and sought to have the pilot abolished this session, would require a follow-up audit if the pilot is renewed.

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