The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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March 18, 2013

Education bill overshadows governor’s lengthy agenda of more than two dozen other measures

2013 session at halfway mark

CHARLESTON — His proposed changes to West Virginia public schools are getting plenty of attention, but Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin also has more than two dozen other measures pending at the Legislature.

Halfway through the session, the governor is counting on lawmakers to begin advancing the rest of his 29-item agenda.

With the education proposal up for a vote today in the Senate, just two of the governor’s bills have passed at least one chamber. The House last month approved his steep increases of fines for pipeline safety violations, following the fiery December rupture of a Sissonville natural gas line. Delegates on Friday sent the first of Tomblin’s bills to his desk, a supplemental budget measure maintaining funding for child day care aid while paying court-appointed lawyers.

Around a dozen more of Tomblin’s measures have cleared at least one committee, but the rest are idling.

Besides the schools bill, the agenda item with the highest profile is drawn from the recent Justice Reinvestment Initiative study of West Virginia’s inmate crowding crisis. Among other provisions, it would increase supervision and drug treatment options for inmates upon release and reduce the number of parolees who are returned to prison for minor violations. The Senate Finance Committee expects to take it up today. Senate Judiciary advanced it earlier this month, though it still faces critics of its provision releasing nonviolent offenders into supervised programs six months before their sentences end.

Tomblin has gotten traction with his call for jobs impact statements to accompany legislation. Lawmakers in both chambers and across party lines have expressed support for weighing the economic benefits or costs of pending bills. The Senate Economic Development Committee endorsed a version of that bill last week, while tweaking who besides the governor could request a statement.

The Senate health committee recently advanced the governor’s bid to cut Medicaid transport costs by sending up a brokerage for arranging rides to medical offices. But those lawmakers also added a major exemption, allowing ambulance companies, senior centers and public transit to opt out of the brokerage.

The House’s economic development committee has approved an agenda item that seeks to recapture $8 million annually for the general revenue budget. This bill would reclaim proceeds from taxes on corporate net income, insurance policies and extracted natural resources that now fund such special purposes as improving railroad service.

But Republicans remain wary of a companion measure that seeks to increase West Virginia’s already hefty emergency reserves. It would allow the state to save up to the equivalent of 15 percent of general revenue spending in its main “Rainy Day” fund. The limit is now 13 percent.

Once the new target is reached, the bill would deposit future surplus revenues into a new fund for road, water and sewer projects. It would also devote the investment earnings from some of the state’s reserves to rising Medicaid costs.

But differing views of government taxes and spending derailed a similar measure last year.

“There is some question within our caucus as to whether we need to increase the amount that’s set aside in the Rainy Day fund,” said House Minority Leader Tim Armstead. “We believe that those funds might be better used being put back in the economy through tax deductions and that will in turn promote job creation in West Virginia.”

Armstead, a Kanawha County Republican, said the 46 GOP delegates will more closely assess that and other bills from Tomblin’s agenda as they begin to move.

The governor’s proposed crackdown on drugged driving, meanwhile, has bogged down in House Judiciary. Lawmakers there are debating whether drivers should lose their licenses for refusing to allow a drug test following their arrest. The bill allows police officers to test for drugs as well as alcohol after an arrest for driving under the influence, while recognizing that a breath test can detect alcohol but not drugs. But the measure’s language has committee members questioning whether it would violate constitutional rights.

Other bills that await even an initial committee’s review include Tomblin’s bid to apply state taxes to more online sales. His proposal limiting tax credits for alternative fuel vehicles to those that run on natural gas has also idled, but it is slated for a Tuesday review by the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The governor has also had eight bills introduced that would add a total of $250 million to the current budget while rerouting existing spending. Those include the child care and public defender measure passed Friday.

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