WV Legislature's bill bottleneck is starting to budge - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

WV Legislature's bill bottleneck is starting to budge

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CHARLESTON, WV -

A legislative session can't live on education reform alone, and with the halfway hump in the rearview mirror and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education bill on its way to his desk, it begs the question, "What next?"

Senate Bill 359, Tomblin's education reform bill, has easily been the most contentious piece of legislation so far in the 2013 regular legislative session, which ends at midnight April 13.

The Senate unanimously passed the bill March 18, and it unanimously passed the House of Delegates Education Committee the next day.

Education Out of the Way

These seemingly easy votes came long after teachers' groups, lawmakers and the Tomblin administration came to compromises on issues such as teacher hiring, teacher planning periods and the school calendar.

Tomblin called the measure "landmark legislation," and two of his aides said talks to reach those compromises were "non-stop."

But Tomblin introduced 29 initiatives for the session, and legislators often have their agendas, too.

To add a touch more drama, a statutory deadline to introduce bills is looming on this week's horizon as well, keeping a ticking timeline in lawmakers' heads.

"The governor's other top priority is justice reinvestment," Tomblin's policy director Hallie Mason said March 18. "We're very pleased with the pace of things.

"We're only halfway through session, and (S.B. 359) has left the Senate, which is significant."

Senate Bill 371, Tomblin's prison overcrowding and justice reinvestment bill, is scheduled to pass the full Senate March 21, and its details have stayed relatively under the radar.

The basics of the bill include preliminary health screens and psychological evaluations for anyone committed to the custody of the Division of Corrections and mandatory supervision once a person is released as well as rehabilitation treatment for inmates with substance abuse issues.

Tomblin's Chief of Staff Rob Alsop said the administration gets daily updates on the progress of the session.

"We watch all the agendas and the committees, but everyone has been working well on all our bills," Alsop said March 18. "Legislators always have questions – sometimes things we haven't thought of.

"Justice reinvestment is huge; it's going to take a lot of work, and it needs to be a good debate to get a good bill."

Sessions by the Numbers

Just checking the numbers for the session shows more progress than roughly this time last year. At the halfway point of the 2012 regular session, two bills had completed legislation; 27 House bills had passed the House; and 34 Senate bills had passed the Senate.

As for the 2013 session, one bill has completed legislation; 30 House bills have passed the House; and 36 Senate bills have passed the Senate.

Senate Bill 197, the sole bill awaiting Tomblin's signature so far this session, allocates supplemental budgetary funds.

Last year, a grand total of 2,029 bills were introduced during the regular session. This year's tally so far is more than 1,500 with more on the way.

March 25 marks the final day to introduce bills, and lawmakers have been asked to get all their drafts submitted by 1 p.m. March 21 to ensure enough time for legislative services to get them through the process.

And the session deadlines continue, with April 3, the 50th day of the session, as the deadline for bills to be read a third time in either house.

House Speaker Rick Thompson said March 20 he was pleased with the steady pace of the session, and he said the delegates all have a positive attitude.

"The halfway point was just a few days ago, and already the House has passed about 30 bills, including legislation to address missing persons and endangered children, ease fines on coal mining companies to give them more flexibility and improve school attendance," Thompson said. "Meanwhile, the House is on the verge of passing extremely important education reform legislation and we are expected to send about 14 more bills to the Senate by the end of the week."

Tomblin's Bill Progress

A spot check of Tomblin's other measures shows several measures waiting in committee. Senate Bill 183, which would update terms in the Corporate Net Income Tax Act, passed the Senate and is waiting for passage in the House Finance Committee.

Senate Bill 208, which contains more supplemental budget appropriations, also has passed the Senate and is waiting for action in the House Finance Committee.

House Bill 2505, which would increase the civil penalties on pipeline safety violations, is one bill Tomblin touted during his Feb. 13 State of the State address. It has passed the full House of Delegates and is on the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee agenda.

Another bill Tomblin teased during his State of the State address, House Bill 2513, targets drugged driving. That measure is still waiting for a vote in the House Judiciary Committee.

House Bill 2508, which would increase the minimum capital investment threshold from more than $25 million to more than $75 million for sales increment financing in county and municipal economic opportunity development districts, is being read in the full House this week.

And two more of Tomblin's bills are being read in the full House this week: House Bill 2514, which would lower the amount of tax credits available under the Film Industry Investment Act; and House Bill 2516, which would update terms in the West Virginia Personal Income Tax Act.

Tomblin's call for jobs impact statements to accompany all legislation has received verbal support from lawmakers across the board, but it's still waiting out the process as well.

But not without changes. The Senate Health and Human Resources Committee passed Tomblin's proposal to cut Medicaid transportation costs by setting up a brokerage to figure out rides to medical offices, but members made a change to allow ambulance companies, senior centers and public transit to opt out of that brokerage.