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Home rule bill on track for approval

WV House
Apr. 10, 2013 @ 11:00 PM

CHARLESTON -- A bill that extends West Virginia's municipal home rule pilot program is on track for passage after the House of Delegates amended the proposal Wednesday to prohibit participating cities from regulating the possession or sale of guns.

The pilot program, which was established in 2008, has given Huntington and three other cities more authority to address their problems. Senate Bill 435 would continue the program into 2019 and allow all other cities in the state to apply to join.

The Senate unanimously approved its version of the bill last month and sent it to the House. The bill, however, had stalled in recent days because of amendments proposed by Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha.

The amendment that was adopted on a nearly unanimous voice vote requires cities to nullify any gun laws they have on the books if they want to participate in the pilot program. Cities would still be able to ban firearms from municipal buildings other than parking garages.

The amendment is similar to House Bill 2760, which repeals all existing local gun-control ordinances. State law already forbids cities and counties from enacting firearms measures, but four cities -- Charleston, South Charleston, Dunbar and Martinsburg -- had ordinances that were grandfathered in when the law was passed.

House Bill 2760 was sent to the Senate on a 94-4 vote last month, but Senate leaders, citing threatening phone calls and emails from gun supporters, have said they will not take up the proposal.

"It's an extremely important provision to the House, and I think it's important that we recognize that people have a right to protect themselves," Lane said of his amendment to the home rule bill. "If we're going to grant additional authority to municipalities, we want to make sure it doesn't go too far."

Lane's amendment also affects the existing home rule cities of Huntington, Charleston, Bridgeport and Wheeling, meaning they must repeal any gun-control ordinances if they want to remain in the pilot program. Charleston is the only home rule city that has a local gun-control ordinance. It restricts the purchase of handguns to one per month and requires a three-day waiting period for any handgun purchase.

The House also unanimously approved three amendments offered by Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell. Two of the amendments add language that ensures any ordinances adopted under the pilot program comply with the state constitution and requires a legislative review of the program in 2019.

Sobonya said her third amendment, prohibiting home rule cities from implementing new fees on non-residents, provides safeguards against thinly disguised occupation taxes. The amendment would not nullify already-existing fees on non-residents, such as Huntington's and Charleston's user fee, she said.

The home rule bill already includes a long list of issues that cities cannot manipulate with the pilot program, including annexation, marriage laws and taxation. The one exception is cities can implement a 1 percent sales tax if they reduce or eliminate their business and occupation tax.

"My concern is that an occupation tax would be prohibited in this bill, but cities would still try to implement it and call it something else, so my amendment addresses that," Sobonya said.

Asked whether she will vote for the home rule legislation, Sobonya said she has a greater comfort level with the amended version but is still undecided.

"Redistricting took Huntington out of my district, so my overriding concern is about the people who live outside the city and how they would be impacted by potential fees," she said. "Having said that, I'm supportive of trying to make Huntington a strong city. Strong cities make stronger counties, and we all benefit as a state."

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams, who as a former delegate has floor privileges in the House and watched the amendment votes from the back of the chamber, said he supports the legislation in its current form.

"The amendments don't do any harm with what we're trying to do in Huntington by any means," he said.

Williams has labeled the home rule legislation as an economic development bill for Huntington. The city used the pilot program to implement a 1 percent sales tax and eliminate or reduce the business and occupation tax for manufacturers, retailers and service-based businesses. The change has made the city more competitive in its quest to retain and recruit companies and yielded about $1 million in additional revenue, he said.

If the House approves Senate Bill 435, the Senate must vote on whether it accepts the House amendments. If it doesn't, the bill will go to a conference committee. A conference committee consists of a handful of lawmakers from each chamber who try to reach a compromise on the bill. The legislative session ends at midnight Saturday.

Follow H-D reporter Bryan Chambers on Facebook or Twitter @BryanChambersHD.

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