Tomblin won't call special session
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin said Tuesday he does not plan to call a special session of the Legislature to address key bills that died on Saturday at the end of the 2011 regular session.
Tomblin said he does not anticipate calling a special session at the end of the week to address bills to regulate Marcellus Shale drilling, or to set up a funding plan to pay down a massive $8 billion unfunded liability for future health care benefits for retired state and public school employees.
He could call a special session to correct any bills vetoed this week for technical errors.
Tomblin, D-Logan, said there are too many unresolved issues to try to wrap up in a brief special session -- particularly in the case of Marcellus Shale drilling regulations.
He said has asked Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman to draft emergency in-house regulations for Marcellus operations for the short term.
"We can get by, until some compromise can be reached," he said, referring to ongoing discussions to develop comprehensive Marcellus drilling regulations.
Tomblin said he will also ask legislators to increase funding for DEP in the budget bill to hire more inspectors for gas well sites. Senate Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said the budget conferees had not received any budget revisions from Tomblin's office as of Tuesday evening.
Tomblin also said Tuesday he does not plan to call a special session to address the massive Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) liability, even though the House and Senate differed on only one key issue in the complex plan to pay down the debt.
The House plan called for taking $250 million of state Rainy Day emergency reserve funds as an up-front payment. Both Tomblin and the Senate objected to raiding the funds, intended to keep state government functioning in the event of a major natural disaster or economic catastrophe.
"I think we're much closer than we were six months or even six days ago," Tomblin said of the OPEB plan. "The big question is the funding source."
Tomblin said he plans to continue to work with senators and delegates to come up with an acceptable funding mechanism to subsidize the retiree health care benefits.
Without a funding plan, increases in health care costs will mean the state will soon be unable to afford the current pay-as-you-go plan for retiree health benefits.
"No one would like to see that problem resolved as soon as possible more than I would," Tomblin said.
Supporters of both bills said Tuesday they are still pushing for a special session.
Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, said momentum for the OPEB plan could be lost if the Legislature does not act in the immediate future.
"We're 95 percent there," said McCabe, a key architect of the OPEB bill. "We agree on everything, except an initial source of funding into the OPEB trust fund."
Likewise, David McMahon, with the state Surface Owners Rights Organization, said it is critical to address Marcellus regulation immediately.
McMahon disagrees with Tomblin that DEP can effectively regulate Marcellus Shale drilling without changes in the law.
"The DEP can't make them meet with surface owners before they survey," McMahon said. "The DEP can't stop them from drilling 200 feet from somebody's porch."
Frequently, governors have called the Legislature back into special session briefly to take up any bills that were close to passage at the end of the regular session.
Today is the fourth day of an extended session to allow House and Senate budget conferees to complete work on the state's 2011-12 spending plan. Generally, the extended sessions last about one week.
Tuesday afternoon, the House and Senate budget conferees briefly met publicly for the first time to resolve the differences in the two versions of the budget bill.
The spending plan (HB2012) will appropriate a total of more than $11 billion of funds for the 2011-12 budget year, including more than $4 billion of tax revenue.
Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette or 304-348-1220.