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Tom Miller: Legislature meets at Independence Hall in honor of WV150

Jun. 23, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Last week's celebration of West Virginia's 150th birthday as a state on June 20 included three days of legislative interim committee meetings in Wheeling -- site of this state's first capital. A joint session of the House and Senate Judiciary committees kicked off the event at Independence Hall -- this state's first Capitol building -- on June 19.

Then on the state's actual 150th birthday the following day, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and legislators gathered at Independence Hall. It marked the first time in 50 years that a sitting governor and the legislature had convened there. Jeremy Richter of Wheeling portrayed Arthur Boreman, West Virginia's first governor back in 1863, and delivered Boreman's speech from that day.

Many of the interim committees met at Wheeling Island Hotel but there were selected sessions at Independence Hall. A joint meeting of the State Senate and House of Delegates finance committees included a tour of Independence Hall on Thursday.

Newly-elected House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, and Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, both said this first round of interim meetings is always limited to mostly organizational issues and does not include consideration of any specific legislation.

However, the Select Committee on Children and Other Issues met at Catholic Charities of Wheeling for a public hearing on poverty's effect on children. One of the key topics for discussion, according to Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, who is the committee chairman, was housing.

A large percentage of West Virginia's children under the age of 8 have no stable home in which to live, Unger said. There are even known instances in West Virginia where children are living in cars and abandoned trailers, Sen. Unger said.

"This causes toxic stress, and inhibits development," Unger said. "It creates uncertainty and anxiety, and affects child achievement."

Jodie Gardill, associate director of behavioral health advocacy at Legal Aid of West Virginia, suggested the Wheeling area needs more public transportation. Not having transportation to a job leads to financial and housing insecurity, she said.

Meanwhile, at a meeting of the Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary, Delegate Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, suggested witnesses should be put under oath when they testify at a legislative committee hearing. Sen. Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming, said he supports it.

"It's never been done since I've been here," said Hall, who served four years in the House of Delegates before being elected to the Senate in 2012.

Meanwhile, the state Racing Commission decided at its meeting in Charleston last Tuesday that it would defer any action on a request from the thoroughbred and greyhound racing associations to pursue an economic impact study of racing at the state's four tracks. Commission members said it would duplicate a study by a legislative interim committee that will address declining revenues at the state's four racetrack-casinos.

They also learned that revenues for the month of May from wagering on races at West Virginia's racetracks was down about 12 percent from May of 2013 -- consistent with a drop in revenue from video slots and table games at the racetrack casinos that are being increasingly affected by increased competition from surrounding states.

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The choice of Harrison County Delegate Tim Miley as the new Speaker of the House of Delegates by the thin Democrat majority last week came as no surprise after his only competitor, Delegate Harry K. White, D-Mingo, dropped out of the race.

It was somewhat interesting though, that one of the 54 Democrats in the House -- Delegate Ryan Ferns, D-Ohio -- chose to vote for Republican Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, instead of his own party's choice. Of course, it didn't alter the outcome since all but one of the 53 remaining Democrat votes were cast for Miley. In the usual tradition, Miley also voted for Armstead who, in turn, cast the lone GOP vote for Miley.

Delegate Ferns told reporters afterwards he was unhappy with some of the impact that some of the outside special interest groups had on the Speaker's race. He said he thought there were "bully tactics involved" and that some of his colleagues were "excessively persuaded" to vote for Miley.

Since the GOP has the largest number of minority members in the House in decades (46) and needs only to elect five more Republican delegates in the 2014 general election to seize control of the House of Delegates for the first time in decades, Republicans need to concentrate on the half dozen races that offer the most likely prospects to seize control of the lower chamber in 2015.

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After learning about convictions against a Pennsylvania physician who was convicted of killing infants after they were born at his Philadelphia abortion clinic, Delegate Rick Moye, D-Raleigh, wants West Virginia to take a look at the two abortion clinics in this state. Moye introduced a resolution on this topic at the 2013 regular session of the state legislature that was adopted by the House of Delegates only to die in the state Senate.

Jeremy Dys, who is president and general counsel for the Family Planning Council of West Virginia, agrees with Moye that the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources doesn't need any more action to undertake an inspection of the two abortion clinics now operating in West Virginia to "make sure there are sanitary conditions ... to make sure we're not going to end up with any of the same problems that were discovered in the Pennsylvania case."

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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