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Statehouse beat: Two bills are caught in the crossfire

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Saturday night, the House and Senate played a game of chicken -- and the 2013 regular session ended up crashing and burning.

The biggest loss in the carnage, barring the likelihood it will be put on a special session call, was the Morgantown-area tax increment financing authorization (SB125), lost because the House and Senate couldn't agree on how many magistrates should get pay raises this year.

A rational person unfamiliar with the Legislature might ask what in the world magistrate pay has to do with a multimillion-dollar economic development project.

You may recall last week regarding the TIF bill, I pointed out how provincial legislators can be, to the point that if a particular project does not benefit their region, they'd just as soon not have it located in the state at all.

This time, the horse trade the House wanted was to eliminate a lower pay tier for magistrates from smaller counties, giving $6,375 pay raises to 48 magistrates and proportional raises for their staffs.

The Senate, not keen on singling out one group of public employees for pay hikes, offered a plan to restore salaries for eight magistrates and staff who dropped to the lower pay tier Jan. 1 because of population losses in their counties.

(Off topic, but it's probably good we don't pay teachers that way, with teachers at AAA schools getting paid more than A ...)

At about 11:30 p.m., the Senate also extended a peace offering of an interim study of magistrates' caseload and pay, which didn't placate House leadership. (As a practical matter, had the House taken up either bill in the waning moments, they very likely would have been "talked" to death by opponents of either measure.) The magistrate pay bill originally passed the House 53-45 after more than 90 minutes of debate ...

Now the question is will Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin -- who was working behind the scenes Saturday to free up the TIF bill -- call a special session at the end of this week's budget conference to take up those measures. A statement from his office early Sunday morning said he will consider it, but he needs to talk first with legislative leadership.

(One imagines that after a session with hardly any economic development accomplishments, Tomblin would be keen to sign off on the $100 million-plus development project.)

House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, said Sunday the House is willing to consider a special session to finish Saturday's work.

"There still could be an agreement if we all sit down around the table," he said.

***

Speaking of Thompson, the Legislature rarely goes more than a session or two without some type of scheme to feather their state pensions.

The latest was Saturday, when Delegate Mark Hunt, D-Kanawha, at the behest of House leadership, amended an innocuous bill allowing the state Retirement Board to set employer contribution rates without having to get legislative approval (SB507) to also allow eligible legislators to draw state pensions and their legislative salaries simultaneously.

Thompson was one of five delegates excused from voting because they qualify under the rule of 80 (age plus years of service equal that magic number for retirement in the state pension plan), and would immediately be able to begin double-dipping.

However, at least 21 delegates asked if they should be excused from voting on the bill, since all are close to qualifying for the proposed double benefits.

"Let's hope we have a quorum when we're done," Thompson quipped, regarding the Rule 49 requests.

The bill passed the House 54-40 but, to its credit, the Senate wouldn't accept the bill with Hunt's amendment, and it died Saturday.

***

Of course, one of the more shameful matters of the final day, as eloquently addressed by Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, was how a bill intended to give cities more autonomy and self-governance (SB435) became loaded down with gun lobby rhetoric and religious right mandates.

Ultimately, rather than expanding authority of home rule cities, the bill is a laundry list of things participating cities cannot do: They cannot restrict sales of firearms or ammunition; they generally cannot prevent people bringing guns into city parks or public facilities; and they cannot recognize same-sex marriages.

Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, insisted on keeping the prohibition on city sanctioned marriages -- even after legislative attorneys pointed out that municipalities have no authority under state law to issue marriage licenses or otherwise ordain marriages.

***

Finally, it's a tie for most absurd floor speeches of the 2013 session. First, there was Delegate Dana Lynch, D-Webster, who opposed the seat-belt bill based on the theory there's some big scroll in the sky with everyone's birth and death dates on it, and nothing one does on earth can change those predestined dates. Of course, that's exactly the kind of misguided fatalism that keeps West Virginia last or near-last on health and wellness rankings.

When we thought no one could match that, Delegate Ray Canterbury, R-Greenbrier, came up in the 59th day with his pronouncement that poor children should have to work for their free school lunches, and followed it up Saturday with a bizarre speech about how students in Japan have to clean their schools -- a floor speech cut off in mid-stream of consciousness by Speaker Thompson.

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


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