Legislature passes 20-week abortion ban, chemical tank bill, others
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Legislators closed out the 2014 regular session passing bills to restrict abortion rights and to weaken city gun ordinances, but also completed work on legislation intended to prevent future water contamination crises, and to set the groundwork for a fund to let the state capitalize on revenues from the Marcellus Shale boom.
A bill that has been a major focus of the session, setting standards for regulating above-ground chemical storage tanks (SB373), got final passage from the House Saturday night with a 98-0 vote. The bill was prompted by a chemical tank leak in Charleston that contaminated water in nine West Virginia counties, an incident that occurred on the second day of the 60-day legislative session.
After countless hours of discussion and debate in three committees and on the House floor, the House gave final passage to the bill without discussion.
The Senate Friday amended the bill to restore fees that would be paid by owners of storage tanks to offset the cost of Department of Environmental Protection inspections of the tanks.
It was one of several bills of interest taken up in the final hours of the 2014 regular session, as the Legislature reached adjournment at midnight Saturday.
An ongoing emotional debate on legislation to ban abortions of fetuses after 20 weeks gestation (HB4588) reached a crescendo in the Senate with a 29-5 passage vote on the controversial measure.
Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, who had demanded the bill be read in its entirety prior to the vote, admonished his colleagues for passing what many believe is unconstitutional legislation, saying the state will never move ahead so long as legislators are beholden to special interests.
"We want to focus on gays, abortion and guns, and I have to wonder when that's going to change," he said, adding, "We will never get past 50th if we worry more about the next election than the next generation."
Sen. Donald Cookman, D-Hampshire, who voted for the bill, urged anti-abortion activists to show the same level of empathy for protecting abused and neglected children, recounting horrendous cases of abuse he saw as a circuit court judge.
After the emotional debate in the Senate, the House passed the bill 83-15 and sent it to the governor without discussion, after Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, did not recognize members to address the bill.
Also on the last day of the legislative session Saturday:
-- The House passed 92-5 and sent to the governor legislation to limit the authority of municipalities to regulate firearms (SB317).
Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, argued that the bill was inconsistent, allowing cities to prohibit guns in places such as city halls, municipal auditoriums, and at fairs and festivals, but allowing persons with conceal carry permits to bring guns into municipal parks, pools and recreation centers where children congregate.
"I support the Second Amendment, but I also need to support the children I represent in my district," said Poore, whose district includes downtown, East End and the West Side of Charleston.
"Those closest to problems should make decisions and decide what is best for their areas," she said.
-- Despite being a tough year financially for the state, the Legislature passed several pay raise bills Saturday.
That included bills to give $1,000 pay raises to public school teachers, and 2 percent raises to school service personnel (SB391), and to increase uncompetitively low salaries for State Police forensic lab technicians by 30 percent (SB486).
However, a bill to allow county commissions to authorize 12 percent pay raises for county elected officials (SB379) was lost when the Senate refused to concur in House amendments late Saturday.
That followed a lengthy debate in the House on the bill. Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, was among those who opposed the legislation, which would give county elected officials raises averaging $7,000, saying, "We should be focusing on raising the pay of every West Virginian."
The budget bill, which will be taken up in a House-Senate conference committee this week, includes $504 pay raises for state employees.
-- A bill to increase the state minimum wage (HB4283) passed late Saturday, when the Senate voted 20-14 to accept the House's version of the plan, to give 75-cent an hour increases next Jan. 1, and in Jan. 1, 2016. The Senate had proposed spreading out the $1.50 increase to $8.75 an hour over three years, a change requested by business lobbyists.
-- Senate President Jeff Kessler's proposal to put a portion of increased oil and natural gas severance tax collections produced by the Marcellus Shale drilling boom into a Future Fund to be used for economic development, education and workforce development, infrastructure, and tax relief (SB461) passed late Saturday. However, the House significantly amended the bill, instead directing 3 percent of all severance taxes collected to the fund if a series of positive economic triggers are met.
Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, said that with the current state of the economy, its unlikely any money could go into the fund prior to 2019.
The House passed the bill 91-5, and it passed the Senate 32-2. The House, however, rejected a companion resolution for a Constitutional amendment for the Future Fund (SJR14).
-- Lost in the waning moments of the session was a bill originally designed to reduce state Lottery subsidies to the racing industry and various state projects by 10 percent to provide an extra $35 million of general revenue to balance the 2014-15 budget (HB4333).
The Senate amended the bill to require that many Lottery subsidies that are set in state Code become accounts that would be appropriated by the Legislature each year, a move opposed by the racing industry, which received $87.6 million in subsidies in fiscal 2013.
Senators rejected an amendment by Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, to protect the racing industry subsidies, with a 10 percent reduction.
"This bill has the potential to kill 7,300 jobs," he said.
-- The composition of the Ethics Commission (HB4298) will shrink from 12 to nine members in a conference committee compromise passed by the Legislature, after the Senate amended the bill to reduce the commission to seven members, and to place an ex-lobbyist and representative of agriculture on the panel.
-- The Legislature passed a bill to amend the state Tourism Development Act to make a proposed $80 million medical clinic complex at The Greenbrier resort eligible for millions in corporate net tax credits (HB4184).
Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, objected, saying he didn't necessarily oppose the idea, but the fact it surfaced at the last minute.
"On the 59th day, here we go with an amendment to give a tax credit of several million dollars to The Greenbrier," he complained.
Proponents, including Sen. Ronald Miller, D-Greenbrier, said the proposed facility would bring thousands of jobs to the Greenbrier Valley.
-- Legislation passed and was sent to the governor to regulate the Department of Agriculture's Rural Rehabilitation Loan program, after a legislative audit found numerous discrepancies with the $5 million revolving loan program under former Commissioner Gus Douglass (SB350).
-- The Senate confirmed 172 of 173 gubernatorial appointments, removing Diane Paletta's appointment to the Board of Dentistry over a possible conflict.
Senate Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, moved that Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Karen Bowling's confirmation be voted on separately, and she was confirmed on a 33-1 vote, with Prezioso voting no.
The Confirmations Committee had previously sent questionnaires to Bowling, and to state Ethics Commission nominees.
Reach Phil Kabler at email@example.com or 304-348-1220.