Special session complete after lawmakers pass five bills in two - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Special session complete after lawmakers pass five bills in two days

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Lawmakers moved quickly to pass five bills in a special session that lasted less than 24 hours.

Measures that failed in the final hour of the regular legislative session – a Monongalia County development plan and pay raises for magistrate judges and staff in six counties – were put on the proclamation along with three other measures for the first extraordinary session of the 2013 Legislature.

Lawmakers suspended the Constitutional rules that bills be read on three separate days to pass two of the bills in the evening April 17 and the rest around noon April 18.

The legislation to allow the Monongalia County Commission to enact a tax increment finance project that died in the final day of the regular legislative session passed the full Legislature in just an hour of an extraordinary session April 17.

The measure passed the Senate unanimously and passed the House of Delegates with only two dissenting votes.

Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, explained that the bill, Senate Bill 1001, would create the 1,450 acre project that would include an interstate interchange, a new baseball stadium for minor league teams and West Virginia University and about 1,100 permanent jobs.

The TIF bill was seemingly held hostage during the regular session when lawmakers couldn't compromise on magistrate pay. The bill lawmakers finally decided on for the special session calls for a study by the National Center of State Courts to look at magistrate caseload, eliminates the current two-tier pay scale by Jan. 1, 2017, and also increases the pay for magistrates and their staffs in Lewis, McDowell, Wetzel and Wyoming counties, whose pay was reduced at the start of this calendar year because of a decrease in population. Salaries currently are determined by population. Barbour and Roane counties also will benefit from that change.

Another leftover issue included in the special session call was House Bill 103, the distribution of state funds for volunteer fire departments' workers compensation. It passed the full Legislature April 17 after the constitutional rules were suspended in both houses.

Prezioso told the Senate there had been a "misconception that the Senate doesn't support volunteer fire departments," but this bill should clear that up, he said. Prezioso explained the bill's progress: The House of Delegates proposed pulling $7.5 million from the fire marshal's account, but Prezioso said the parties agreed that was too deep a cut, and put $500,000 into the volunteer fire department workers compensation line item. Prezioso said the committee, in talking with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's office, realized that would not be enough funding, so the final proposal that ended up in the bill took $4 million from the fire marshal's account and put it toward the volunteer fire departments' workers compensation fund. Prezioso said Tomblin's office indicated those funds should "take care of the workers' comp problem for probably two years."

The bill also calls for a comprehensive study of how to better sustain volunteer fire departments, due to the Legislature by Dec. 31, 2015.

Lawmakers approved rule-making authority for the Tax Department Thursday, which was needed because of the home rule expansion that was passed during the regular legislative session and the Monongalia TIF bill. Before the vote, a handful of senators asked the Legislature to pay close attention to how it set the rules relating to that bill in the next session so that it's fair for municipalities.

The bill will give the office of tax appeals exclusive jurisdiction to hear disputes about the local taxes, and it will allow the tax commissioner to assess a fee that will not exceed 5 percent for the total administrating the collection enforcement of the legislation.

According to House Finance Committee Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, the current 1 percent fee does not adequately cover administrative expenses. He said $66,000 is currently collected from municipalities in the home rule program, but it costs $50,000 in administrative costs. Going forward with potentially 20 municipalities involved in the program, White said administration may far exceed 1 percent.

The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 26 to 9 and the House of Delegates approved it by a vote of 72 to 22.

The final measure, Senate Bill 1005, included a handful of budget appropriations. It provides $10 million for natural disaster relief by pulling it from 2009 flood recovery money. The rest of the funding comes from lawsuit settlement money in the attorney general's account. Those funds are returned to the state's General Fund through the bill for several different programs and projects, including $1.9 million for a new phone system for the attorney general. Other funding included $3 million for state mental health facilities and $1 million in scholarships for pharmacy students at West Virginia University and Marshall University.

The bill passed both chambers unanimously.