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Statehouse Beat: Status report on bills

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- This could be an anticlimactic final week of the 2013 legislative session, given that one of the two key bills on Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's agenda, public education reform (HB359), passed the Legislature more than two weeks ago.

However, experience suggests the session will go to midnight Saturday -- even if the last couple of hours are devoted to reading resolutions.

Here's where bills of interest stand going into the final days of the session:

* * *

* Prison overcrowding (SB371). The governor's other key bill this session, and the product of a nearly year-long study by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments. Rest assured that a somewhat tweaked version of the bill will pass by Saturday.

The key objections seem to come from House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, primarily over provisions for six months' early release with supervision for currently incarcerated non-violent offenders; and from House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, over provisions giving additional authority to the state Supreme Court, including overseeing a multi-disciplinary Community Supervision Committee.

Those issues look like minor tweaks, not major overhauls, and as of Friday, there seemed to be a compromise agreed to, though not yet in writing.

Bottom line: If they don't pass the bill, the state is going to have to build one and maybe two prisons at a cost of $250 million to $600 million in the long-term. Short-term, they risk the likelihood of a major violent episode at one of the prisons or regional jails, and/or court orders for outright release of inmates at overcrowded facilities.

* * * 

* Continuing municipal home rule (SB435). Legislation to continue and expand the successful home rule pilot project seemed to be sailing along -- until it reached amendment stage on the House floor Friday.

The bill was laid over Friday because of several GOP amendments pending, the most glaring of which is an amendment by Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, that would put the contents of the dead bill to nullify municipal gun ordinances (HB2760) into the home rule bill.

It's those kinds of backhanded tactics that contribute to people's low opinion of legislators. Senate leadership has made clear they are not going to pass legislation to nullify gun regulations in Charleston and three other cities, so all Lane's amendment could hope to accomplish is to kill an innovative program to give cities additional powers of self-governance.

It seems particularly shameful that Lane would attempt such a ploy just two days after the tragic handgun murder of Mingo County Sheriff Eugene Crum, but some legislators' desire to suck up to the gun lobby knows no bounds.

Besides that, I'm not a lawyer like Lane, but it would appear to me the amendment is not germane to the bill. The bill pertains to Chapter 8 of state code -- municipalities and municipal government; the amendment addresses Chapter 61, Section 7 -- crimes and their punishment-deadly weapons.

Besides, the bill as amended in House Government Organization already prospectively bars municipalities from enacting firearms ordinances.

* * *

* Morgantown sales tax TIF district (SB125). Approval of a $96 million economic development project providing a new interstate exit in the traffic-congested city, opening up 1,400 undeveloped acres of property for retail, Class A office space and light industrial facilities development ... oh, and building a $16 million ballpark to be shared by West Virginia University and a New York-Penn League minor league ball club, all at no cost to taxpayers would seem to be a no-brainer.

However, legislators tend to be provincial, and if a bill benefits one region of the state, but not their region, they often need a lot of incentive to support it.

(Former Gazette Editor Don Marsh used to illustrate that attitude with a story about a genie granting a wish to an American, a Frenchman, and a Russian.

Both the American and Frenchman admired possessions of their wealthy neighbors and wished for the same, be it a house in Aspen or a vineyard and chateau. The Russian noted that his neighbor owned a herd of goats, and he wished that the goats would die.)

Apparently, the only notable opposition is from Bridgeport Mayor Jim Christie, whose criticism of the project surfaced about the time the New York-Penn League team affiliation with Morgantown was announced.

That very likely kills plans to put an independent Frontier League team in a proposed ballpark for Bridgeport's own TIF district, Charles Pointe. After all, for the same ticket price, are fans of the region going to go to Morgantown to watch top major league prospects, or to Bridgeport to watch players would never drew the interest of major league scouts or who washed out at the rookie or A-league level?

I think Marsh would agree Christie is the Russian in this variation on the parable.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, indicates the bill is just being held up for good old-fashioned horse trading with the Senate, as leverage to get House bills pending there on committee agendas -- but otherwise is not in trouble.

More on the final week of the session on Monday ...

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


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