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Statehouse Beat: Biggest events of 2013

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It was a good year for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, beginning with a successful legislative session that saw passage of most of his agenda, including a broad -- if not groundbreaking -- public education reform package, and legislation intended to reduce prison overcrowding by emphasizing community based programs to reduce recidivism for parolees.

It ended with three major economic development announcements, topped by a very preliminary plan by Brazil-based Odebrecht to locate a billion-dollar petrochemical complex in Wood County, including a much sought-after ethane cracker plant.

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Although the 60-day legislative session went relatively smoothly with few major blow-ups, the House of Delegates found itself in upheaval a month later, when House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, announced he would resign to accept a new cabinet-level position as secretary of the Department of Veterans Assistance.

While at least a half-dozen serious contenders emerged for the post, House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, did a masterful job of building support during what amounted to a month-long campaign for the office.

He owes a great amount of credit to his wife, Susan Miley, who brilliantly put out multiple press releases announcing new commitments to Miley two or three at a time, creating the impression -- which ultimately became the reality -- of Miley building momentum in the speaker's race.

Now comes the real challenge: Trying to keep order in the House, where Democrats have a bare 53-47 majority over Republicans.

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While the Legislature was generally untouched by the Mingo County corruption scandal, state GOP operatives did use it as a smear campaign against Finance Chairman Harry Keith White's bid for House speaker.

Miley presumably vetted White, D-Mingo, before naming him as the new House majority leader.

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Ironically, legislators responded to the Newtown school massacre with a rush of some 33 bills to repeal or weaken gun laws.

While legislative leadership tamped down some of the more excessive bills, including bills that would have made it illegal for federal authorities to enforce federal firearms restrictions, Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, snuck an amendment into legislation expanding municipal home rule to prohibit cities from imposing gun ordinances more restrictive than state laws.

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There were rave reviews for the three-day state sesquicentennial celebration in June, particularly for a massive fireworks display and 3-D video show projected onto the Capitol each evening.

However, witnesses observed fireworks striking the Capitol dome, which raised concerns by sculptor Joe Mullins and others about potential damage to the tissue paper-thin gold leaf covering the dome.

While I was on winter break, General Services awarded a $42,400 contract to Swanke Hayden Connell Architects of New York to inspect the Capitol dome "to assess its current condition, note problem areas, provide recommendations to extend the life of the existing system, and provide opinions of probable cost associated with any repair work."

The contract includes costs for the architectural firm to bring in several consultants, including David Riccio of John Canning and Co. of Cheshire, Conn., the company that gilded the dome during the 2004-05 restoration.

(Swanke Hayden Connell was the architectural firm that oversaw the restoration project, and the general contractor on the project, Wiseman Construction of Charleston, and CAS Structural Engineering of Alum Creek have also been retained as consultants for the dome inspection.)

The contract runs through Nov. 4, but does not specify exactly when the inspection is to take place. (I'm guessing it probably won't be this week.)

 By the way, the contract didn't go out to bid, under an exception in state purchasing law for architectural and engineering services costing less than $250,000 when special circumstances exist (such as the specialized nature of inspecting the Capitol dome).

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The most embarrassing moment of the year: The state Ethics Commission, whose duties include enforcing the state's Open Meetings Act, violated that law by failing to file public notice of its December meeting.

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Finally, 2013 may be remembered as the year West Virginia outlawed stupidity, or at least criminalized it.

As of July 1, using a handheld cellphone while driving became a primary traffic offense, joining a similar ban on texting while driving which went into effect a year earlier. Fines are $100 for first offense, $200 for second offense, and $300 for each call thereafter.

Also on July 1, West Virginia University went tobacco-free, with tobacco use prohibited on all campuses. (Naturally, Marshall followed suit with a ban of its own.)

Wouldn't it be great if state government followed the lead of the state's flagship institution and instituted a campus-wide ban on tobacco use at the Capitol Complex?

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

 


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