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Statehouse Beat: Grading the 2013 session

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Senate President Jeff Kessler gave the 2013 legislative session an "A," most would conclude he was grading on a curve.

Kessler did make a good point that at least two of the key bills passed this session, on public education reform and to curb prison overcrowding, were the result of comprehensive studies by independent organizations looking at the issues.

"We need to continue to look at things more comprehensively, instead of putting band-aids on problems at the back-end," Kessler said at the end of the session.

While Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin was pragmatic in addressing small portions of each issue, and while each bill was watered down through the legislative process, I think the consensus would be that both bills will make progress in addressing the problems.

Kessler might have reduced that grade to a "D" had legislation he advocated, to authorize a tax increment financing plan for a major development project outside of Morgantown, failed.

Both it and the bill it was tethered to, for magistrate pay raises, passed in special session, no small thanks to negotiations by the Tomblin administration.

While it seems, as Minority Leader Tim Armstead put it, "unconscionable" that the fate of the two bills were linked, a little political background explains a lot.

The main sponsor of the magistrate pay bill, House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, is expected to run for state Senate in 2014 against Sen. Sam Cann.

Recall that both Miley and Cann were nominated in January to fill the vacancy created when Sen. Joe Minard resigned to become Senate clerk, and Tomblin selected Cann, a logical choice since appointing Miley would have caused an upheaval in the House, having to appoint a new Judiciary chairman.

While the pay raise bill does not affect Harrison County magistrates, in the other counties in the 12th Senatorial District, Lewis County was one of the four where magistrates and staff took pay cuts Jan. 1 because of population losses, and magistrates in Braxton and Clay counties will get $6,375 raises in 2017 under the bill.

Never underestimate the political influence of magistrates, particularly in small counties.

Complicating matters during the fight over the magistrate pay/TIF bills is that Cann is good friends with Senate Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, and Prezioso was adamant early on that magistrates should not be singled out for pay raises this year.

Should make for an interesting May 2014 primary.

(Speaking of the session, Delegate Kelli Sobonya wanted to clarify that while she was bird-dogging the House-Senate conferees on the home rule/municipal gun ordinance nullification bill, she was not advocating for an amendment barring city officials from performing marriages.)

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Legislators broke with precedent this session by sweeping about $7.5 million out of an attorney general's account for consumer protection settlement funds (something they never dared when Darrell McGraw was A.G.) There's still about $12 million in the account, and legislative leaders reportedly told Patrick Morrisey they'd take that, too, if he protested too much.

(Morrisey also got about $1.86 million of that total re-appropriated back to his office for technology upgrades, salaries, etc.)

Speaking of Morrisey, give kudos where they are due for his Solomon-like analysis of the West Virginia University sports' media rights imbroglio.

Morrisey cut through a lot of clutter in getting to the point that WVU is selling its media rights, not buying anything -- and therefore, following procurement rules and bidding out the contract was a nicety, not a legal requirement.

WVU Athletic Director Oliver Luck could well have picked up the phone and asked IMG to make their best offer for the tier 3 rights, but opted to put the rights up for bid. Botched though it may have been, re-bidding almost certainly will bring the same outcome.

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One of the ongoing storylines of the 2013 session was Senate Majority Leader John Unger's repeated concerns over the Legislature's inability to control the state Supreme Court budget, particularly with measures in the governor's prison overcrowding bill to give additional oversight on community supervision programs for ex-inmates, as well as on magistrate pay raises, which are funded out of the Supreme Court budget.

Interestingly, although the Supreme Court -- whose budget covers all court systems in the state -- constitutionally was not bound by Gov. Tomblin's 7.5 percent spending cut for state agencies, this month the court notified the governor it has reduced its 2013-14 budget by $4 million, returning that money to general revenue.

Meanwhile, condolences to the senator on the death of his mother.

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Finally, one mystery solved. ... There has been a Caterpillar generator at the north circle of the Capitol since last summer. (I initially thought it was for Multifest last August.)

Turns out it's being used by the auditor's office to help keep the Financial Information Management System computers running in the event of a power outage. (Actually, according to Justin Southern in the auditor's office, the computers have backup power -- the generator is to keep air-conditioning operating in the computer room.)

However, that eyesore could be gone later this summer, with requests for bids out for an uninterruptible battery power supply to replace the generator.

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


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