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Statehouse beat: Debates intense in more evenly divided House

We got a sample of the potential contentiousness in a House of Delegates divided, with 54 Democrats and 46 Republicans, in two heated debates last week over the magistrate pay raise bill (HB2434).

With three exceptions, the passage vote and the debate leading up to it was partisan - and to a great extent, more ill-tempered than usual. (It's not unusual to see legislators stage intense debates on the floor, then pat themselves on the back and share a drink in junior rules - but the exchanges last week seemed more angry and personal than usual.)

Delegate Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, who in his new role as minority whip is the target of many of the Democratic delegates' barbs, said despite last week's exchanges, he believes the members of the newly configured House will manage to work together this session.

Also confounding was why the first bill the House leadership took up this session was a controversial pay raise bill that died in Senate Finance last year, and appears to have no better chance of passing the Senate this session.

During the debate, the point was made that the House frequently makes a point that the first bill passed is significant, be it Ethics Act reform, or prescription drug cost management a few years back.

The most plausible theory for why the House this year instead fast-tracked the unpopular and likely doomed magistrate pay raise bill may have something to do with the political aspirations of its lead sponsor, Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison.

Miley is expected to run against appointed Sen. Sam Cann, D-Harrison, in 2014.

(Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin selected Cann over Miley to fill the vacancy created when Sen. Joe Minard retired to become Senate clerk in January.)

While the pay raise bill will fade from voters' memories by 2014, the magistrates in the five counties in the 12th Senatorial District won't forget what Miley tried to do on their behalf - particularly magistrates and staff in Lewis County, who dropped to the lower pay tier effective Jan. 1 because of population losses in that county.

When it comes to elections, magistrates yield a lot of influence in small, rural counties, and that includes Gilmer, Braxton and Clay counties in the 12th.

***

Quote of the week: "Obviously, a gun in the hand of a good guy is better than a cop on the phone." - Delegate Joshua Nelson, R-Boone, endorsing passage of HB2471.

Ironically, at a time when the national dialogue is about toughening gun laws, the Legislature is pursuing a whole slew of bills this session to relax state gun regulations. The first of the bills, HB2471, which expands current law prohibiting authorities from seizing firearms or ammo during states of emergency, passed the House Friday 97-0.

It's one of about 14 pro-gun bills pending, including two (HB2504, HB2580) that not only would declare any future federal restrictions on firearms to be invalid in West Virginia, but would make it a felony to try to enforce those laws, punishable by up to five years in prison. (Not being a lawyer, but how can a state law trump a federal law?)

There's also bills to exempt any firearms and ammo purchased and maintained in West Virginia from federal regulations (SB68, HB2427), to repeal municipal ordinances restricting handgun purchases (HB2558), and to allow persons with concealed weapons permits to pack heat in the Capitol (SB333, HB2459).

Most self-serving of the bills: HB2135, which would allow persons with concealed weapons permits to have loaded firearms in vehicles parked at the Capitol Complex.

As revealed by a show of hands in the House Roads and Transportation Committee (where about half the members indicated they have such permits), the most frequent violators of the current ban on guns on the Capitol grounds are legislators themselves - who inadvertently or intentionally have loaded guns in their vehicles when they arrive at the Capitol each day.

(As Chairwoman Margaret Staggers, D-Fayette, confided, just about every legislator who lives south of U.S. 60 has a concealed weapons permit...)

***

Finally, with the loss of his lucrative (no-bid) deal to produce and distribute radio broadcasts of West Virginia University football and basketball games, whinin' John Raese may be watching his radio empire collapse, but he'll still have plenty of cash coming in from the state.

According to the newest edition of the state auditor's State Dollar Report, Raese's Greer Industries was No. 2 among the top 100 purchase card vendors in the state, making $12,998,945 off the state in 2012.

Which made me think about coming back from a trip to visit Mom about a year ago, and picking up a "58 Live" broadcast. The guest was an engineer discussing a new road-building process that doesn't require limestone.

At the time, I thought if Raese could hear this, heads would roll. Sure enough, since then, Rick Johnson has been fired, and Mike Agnello exiled to a night-time slot that will be pre-empted six months out of the year for Reds baseball.

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

 


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