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Home rule bill OK'd by House, heads back to Senate

Apr. 12, 2013 @ 12:05 AM

CHARLESTON -- The West Virginia House of Delegates wants cities to continue experimenting with home rule to come up with solutions to their problems.

Senate leaders, however, say that with only two days left in the legislative session that more work needs to be done on a bill allowing an extension and expansion of home rule. Efforts to reach a compromise will likely focus not only on a controversial firearms amendment that stalled the legislation earlier this week, but also the number of cities that would be allowed to participate in the municipal home rule pilot program, they say.

By a vote of 95-3, the House on Thursday approved Senate Bill 435, which extends the pilot program until July 1, 2019, and allows an unlimited number of cities in the state to apply to join.

The original pilot program allowed up to five cities to participate, but only four -- Huntington, Charleston, Wheeling and Bridgeport -- gained entry in 2008. Officials in those cities have praised the program, saying it has allowed them to eliminate blight, streamline administrative functions and alter their tax structures to create business growth.

"This is the culmination of a five-year process," said Delegate Kevin Craig, D-Cabell. "We've seen the pilot project work as intended. All of the provisions the cities have brought forth we have learned from and incorporated into the bill."

The legislation does not give complete local control to cities. Participants are prohibited from adopting ordinances that deal with pensions, annexation, marriage laws and taxation, to name a few. The one exception is that cities could adopt a 1 percent local sales tax if they agreed to reduce or eliminate their business and occupation tax. The provision was included because Huntington officials have reported success with the sales tax and business tax cuts.

The House added an amendment to the bill Wednesday that 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 regulate firearms in 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 exempted 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, refused to take up the proposal.

The 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.

Delegates voting against the home rule bill on Thursday were Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, and Nancy Peoples Guthrie, D-Kanawha. Poore and Guthrie said they were voting against the bill only because of the firearms amendment.

"I've been a champion of home rule. It's probably one of the best things we've ever done," Guthrie said. "But we've affected a very good piece of legislation with an extraneous poison pill."

Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell and an outspoken critic of home rule in the past, said she voted for the legislation because all cities are eligible to apply and because of three amendments that she proposed were approved Wednesday. The changes alleviate her underlying concern that the pilot program is unconstitutional, she said.

The Senate probably will not accept the changes that the House made to the bill, said Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson. That would send the bill to a conference committee, which consists of a select few members from each chamber who try to reach a compromise.

Snyder said he was one of the senators who received threatening emails and phone calls last month when his Government Organization Committee did not take up the gun legislation. He stressed the gun amendment is not the only concern that senators have with the home rule bill.

"There are other provisions the House has added into the home rule bill that I don't think we will concur with," he said. "One of those is that any city can apply (to the Municipal Home Rule Board). That's 232 cities. It would just overwhelm the Home Rule Board. It's a citizen board, and they serve without pay."

When the Senate approved the home rule bill last month, the language called for the four existing cities to remain in the pilot program and allowed 14 new cities to join.

House Government Organization Committee Chairman Jim Morgan, D-Cabell, said he also has heard concerns about letting an unlimited number of cities join the program. However, the application process is time-consuming and requires resources that many small cities probably don't have, he said. It's likely that no more than 20 cities would apply, he added.

"When they look at all the steps they have to go through and the costs involved, a lot of cities may step aside and let someone else put forth a plan," Morgan said. "The idea is what works for one is a good plan for others, and it becomes statewide legislation."

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

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