Tom Miller: Key issues may require a special session to resolve
The 60-day regular session of the 2013 West Virginia Legislature zipped by the halfway mark last Thursday. While more than 1,400 bills had already been introduced at that point, only about three dozen of them had passed either the House of Delegates or the state Senate -- a trend that is almost always true for the first half of the session.
The pace will pick up after the 40th day, which is the last day to introduce bills in either chamber. But still history tells us that only about 10 to 15 percent of the bills actually get much attention during the session.
The primary emphasis so far this year has been devoted to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's plan to improve the state's elementary and secondary education system. The State Senate is expected to vote on the bill on Monday. The House of Delegates will then start preparing its version this week, and the House Education Committee is expected to make some major "adjustments" to the legislation.
That's where the very active lobbyists for the teachers' unions expect to get a more sympathetic ear. The version of the governor's bill that the House Education Committee Chairman Mary Poling, D-Barbour -- a retired teacher -- and the members of that panel are expected to recommend is certain to be far more acceptable to lobbyists for the American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia Education Association.
The final version of SB359 -- after the House of Delegates makes anticipated major changes to the Senate bill that passed last week -- will have to be resolved by a 10-member House-Senate conference committee in the final days and perhaps even hours before the April 13 midnight adjournment of the regular 60-day session.
That is why some members of the Senate haven't been very vocal about the legislation. They have been insisting for days that since the final version of the governor's bill will be decided by a House-Senate conference committee, the different versions considered in the Senate and the House of Delegates sometime in early April are of little or no consequence.
Another major issue is going to be delayed until a report on state highway conditions is completed in May so there is already the likelihood of a special summer legislative session to address the recommended improvements on West Virginia's primary and secondary roads.
And if efforts to address the equally difficult task of finding money for needed substance abuse treatment and a solution to the crowded state prisons and regional jails also bogs down at the current legislative session, that issue could also wind up on a special session agenda later this year.
So the possible failure to resolve widespread differences of opinion on the public education issue that stymies any acceptable compromise by midnight of Saturday, April 13, when the current 60-day regular session ends means the education reform issue may have to wait for the special summer session as well.
A stronger law for drivers who fail to buckle their seat belts emerged from committee in the House of Delegates last week. HB2108 would revise current laws that make failure to use a seat belt a secondary offense, which means a driver must be stopped for some other primary offense such as speeding or running a stop sign before the police officer can write a ticket for failure to have the seat belt buckled.
The bill emerged from the House Judiciary Committee by a narrow 13-11 vote after earlier gaining approval in the House Roads and Transportation Committee. Because of the close vote in the second committee, there is still some concern about whether or not the bill will get a favorable vote on the House floor.
Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, has sponsored this proposal in the Senate for the past five years and his bill was endorsed by the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Feb. 19. It is now in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Sen. Palumbo is chairman. Since the Senate has approved this bill each of the last four years only to have it die in a House of Delegates committee each time, Palumbo is waiting to see if the House will approve the legislation this time.
He said last week if the bill does come over from the House, he will work to make sure the Senate doesn't make changes in the legislation. That way, the bill could go directly to the governor for his signature after the Senate vote.
The debate concerning the likelihood of salary increases for elected county officials has surfaced at the Legislature, but the prospects for increased pay for county commissioners, assessors, sheriffs, prosecuting attorneys, circuit clerks and county clerks before the legislative session adjourns in mid-April are not good. The Association of Counties favors an across-the-board raise to bring the salaries of the elected county officials in the smaller counties more in line with their peers in larger counties. But if all of them get the same amount in a pay increase, the disparity would not change.
The proposed new legislation would give county commissioners and assessors a boost of $10,000 more per year while prosecuting attorneys would get $12,000, county sheriffs $13,000 and circuit and county clerks, $15,000. Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and he said last week he doesn't believe there is "any appetite for salary increases this year."
Tom Miller is a retired state government reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He is a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch opinion page.
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