CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Whether it comes to seat belts, child care centers or raw milk, the debate over when government should step in continues at the West Virginia Legislature.
Since the session began in February, lawmakers have sparred over scores of measures in committees and on the House and Senate floors. The House's close 55-44 passage of a stricter seat belt law last week showcased the recurring divide.
Touting saved lives, supporters cited estimates that the bill's threat of a traffic stop and fine would increase seat belt use by 6 percent. West Virginia now falls below the national rate for seat belt use, and has the fourth-worst road death rate, according to the latest federal figures.
Several opponents embraced the value of seat belts, but argued that whether an adult wears one is a matter of individual choice.
"Mountaineers are always free until a politician decides that you're not," said Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason, during the floor debate.
These recurring tensions aren't necessarily partisan. The seat belt vote saw both Republicans and Democrats break ranks. Delegate Patrick Lane said such issues can unite the conservative and liberal wings of the Legislature when the question of government involvement arises.
"It's an interesting coalition that's been put together around less interference by government in our daily lives," said Lane, a Kanawha County Republican. "It's an ongoing debate<t40>...<t$>. For some members it's a guiding principle, for some members it's issue-to-issue."
The November election also increased the GOP ranks in the House. That whittled down the Democratic majority on committees often to just one or two seats. Several committees have since seen regulatory measures passed by narrow votes, significantly amended or derailed.
"It's a very old debate, the rights of the individual versus the rights of the public," said House Health and Human Resources Chair Don Perdue. "It will continue as long as there's a republic."
The Wayne County Democrat's committee has experienced several examples of this divide. A proposed rule governing child care centers bogged down last month following failed attempts to scale it back. Among other provisions targeted by GOP-led amendments, the rule sought to remove a religious exemption to required child immunizations.