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Statehouse Beat: Tomblin quietly makes progress

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In exactly one week's time, the governor's public education reform bill (SB359) went from uncertainty to being passed by both houses and headed for his signature.

Call it quintessential Earl Ray Tomblin.

Unlike his predecessor Joe Manchin, who would have been like a bull pushing for the bill (think photo ops at local elementary schools, numerous press conferences, and frequent appearances on the second floor to cajole and/or arm-twist legislators), Tomblin was practically invisible during the process.

Just as he did for years as Senate Finance chairman, then as Senate president, Tomblin's style is to call in interested parties to talk over issues and come up with compromises.

Throughout last week, you'd see groups of three or four going to or from the governor's office ... sometimes legislators, sometimes teachers' union representatives.

Arguably, not the most transparent process, but the results speak for themselves. In 2010, Manchin twice pushed for public ed reform, and twice his efforts came to naught.

Undoubtedly, we'll see the same process at work as Tomblin gets his prison overcrowding bill (SB371) passed into law.

Some may say that both the education and corrections bills address small portions of multi-faceted issues. Indeed, the biggest contributor to prison overcrowding may be the state's draconian sentences for crimes.

However, Tomblin is pragmatic enough (and has been at this game long enough) to know that getting incremental change, session after session, is frequently preferable to no change at all.

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Given the threats made over the bill to nullify city gun ordinances (HB2760), I was briefly startled to get word midweek that a senator from the Eastern Panhandle was in the hospital.

However, it wasn't Government Organization Chairman Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, who has been the target of the threats, but Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, who checked into CAMC for surgery to correct a kidney ailment.

Snyder, meanwhile, said the threatening calls and emails have tailed off of late, but is concerned they will gear up again after crossover day on April 3, the last day the Senate can act on Senate bills, and the 50th day of the 60-day session.

Given that Government Organization normally meets only on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and given that neither Snyder nor Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, is enthusiastic about the bill, if it isn't on the Gov Org agenda April 9 -- that should be a signal that its chances for passage are in serious doubt.

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To that end, the political action arm of the NRA has sent a legislative alert to its members titled, "West Virginia: Mayor Danny Jones and Charleston Newspapers are Fighting Against Your Gun Rights."

It states, "Don't let (New York Mayor) Bloomberg's views on guns that are being voiced by Danny Jones and the Charleston newspapers dictate your gun rights in this legislative session. We need you to call AND e-mail your two state senators TODAY. Respectfully urge them to support HB2760 and ask them how they plan to vote on HB2760."

Meanwhile, I was reminded of an issue that came up during last year's elections -- that the lead sponsor of HB2760, Delegate Rupert Phillips, D-Logan, was arrested June 23 on domestic battery charges.

The case was dismissed July 7, after the alleged victim chose not to pursue charges. Interestingly, had Phillips been convicted, a condition of his sentence could have been an order prohibiting him from possessing firearms.

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Regarding last week's incorrect item on reasons for Senate Majority Leader strong stand with the teachers' unions on the public ed bill ... is my face red.

Here's what went down: At close to 5 p.m. Friday, I did a final swing through the Capitol, and ran into some delegates (at least one of whom I regard as eminently reliable), who were talking about Unger's stand on the bill, and the fact that his wife is an elementary school teacher in Martinsburg.

Some of the delegates indicated that House members had all gotten a lengthy, multi-page email from Mrs. Unger opposing the bill in its original form. Normally, I would have asked for a copy, but given the hour, and that the delegates were headed out of the Capitol, as well as the fact that AFT-WV was orchestrating an e-mail campaign directed at legislators, I took them at their word. After all, how many elementary school teachers named Unger live in Martinsburg?

Turns out, at least two. The email in fact was from a teacher from Martinsburg named Unger, but whose first name is Shannon. (That's not the name of Unger's wife.)

When I talked to the senator last week, he said his wife was more upset about it than he was, given that she makes it a point to stay out of politics. He also said as far as he knows, he's never met Shannon Unger, and assumes they're not related.

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Finally, you can't make this stuff up: The state contract to provide produce to the Pruntytown Correctional Center has been awarded to ... Crook Brothers.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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