Home Rule to get readings, amendments this week

WHEELING – A bill to continue and expand West Virginia’s Municipal Home Rule Pilot Program is expected to come up for a final vote in the House of Delegates this week – but a controversial measure to eliminate city-imposed gun laws could be added to the legislation by House Republicans.

Wheeling is one of four municipalities participating in the pilot program, along with Charleston, Bridgeport and Huntington.

Senate Bill 435 already has had the first of three required readings before the House and is awaiting further action by the House Rules Committee. The regular session of the Legislature ends at midnight Saturday.

“We’re backlogged with a lot of bills, and that bill is a pretty in-depth bill,” said Delegate Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock, president pro tempore of the House and a member of the Rules Committee. “There’s a potential for a lot of amendments, and that’s why we’re not running it right now. There are a lot of bills we still have to consider that are not as controversial. But we shouldn’t have trouble getting that big boy out of there.”

He expects the Rules Committee to bring SB 435 up for discussion before the full House on Wednesday or Thursday.

The House Government Organization Committee included a provision in the home rule bill barring any participating municipality from seeking to restrict the carrying of a firearm. Existing law already forbids county or local gun ordinances. The House already has passed a separate bill to repeal gun control ordinances in Charleston and Martinsburg, but the measure is stalled in the Senate.

Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Glen Dale, pulled the House bill from consideration in his chamber after Senate members began receiving phone threats from people who want the anti-gun laws repealed.

Swartzmiller was among the sponsors of the gun control measure in the House, and he doesn’t foresee a problem with the House approving the Home Rule bill with the gun control repeal attached.

SB 435 would extend the home rule pilot program through July 1, 2019. With government power largely centered at the state level, the pilot so far has allowed the four participating cities to streamline business rules, reduce blight and improve their finances. As amended by the House Government Organization Committee last week, the home rule bill would renew the pilot for another five years and allow additional municipalities to apply to join.

The House committee also added marriage and divorce ordinances to the list of areas off-limits for the home rule experiment. That roster already includes annexation, pensions, gas drilling and other natural resource extraction, crimes and punishments, and anything that violates the state or U.S. constitutions.

The Senate-passed version had limited the renewed pilot to the four participating cities and up to 10 more. The House committee’s amendment removes that cap, while still requiring cities and towns to hold public hearings with advance notice both before they apply and then submit their home rule plan if they’re accepted.

Delegate Kelli Sobonya is a vocal foe of home rule. The Cabell County Republican has proposed several amendments to the pending measure, including one to prevent any tax-like fee that would apply to non-residents. The bill’s off-limits list already includes ordinances affecting people or property outside a city or town’s boundaries, except when they’re already allowed by state law or legal rulings. The state Supreme Court last decade upheld Charleston’s user fee, charged to anyone who works there.

The bill also restricts tax changes to the enacting of a non-fuel sales tax of up to 1 percent, but only in exchange for cutting or eliminating a business and occupation tax. Huntington had sought to replace its user fee with a 1 percent occupation tax through home rule, prompting a lawsuit. The city has since elected a new mayor, who led a unanimous city council to repeal the targeted tax last month.

A legislative audit released in November declared the pilot a success, and recommended extending it to all cities with more than 2,500 residents. The audit report counted 14 ordinances enacted fully and another six in part through the experiment. Five of these local-control changes are now available statewide, including five adopted by the Legislature. Another amendment from Sobonya, who opposed most of those changes and sought to have the pilot abolished this session, would require a follow-up audit if the pilot is renewed.