W.Va. session was shaped by spill
CHARLESTON – Leading up to a midnight deadline, West Virginia lawmakers scrambled Saturday to give teachers raises, hike the minimum wage and impose a controversial abortion ban.
Meanwhile, the clock ran out on other measures, like a push to limit access to some cold medicines that can be used to cook methamphetamine.
A Jan. 9 chemical spill into the water supply loomed over the session, which began three days before 300,000 people learned their water was contaminated. But the issue didn’t produce late-night drama Saturday. With little fanfare, the House of Delegates unanimously voted around 10 p.m. to send a spill response bill to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
The House and Senate were already largely in agreement on the bill by Friday night.
“I’m tickled to death we got that done,” said Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Glen Dale. “People demanded we have an effective water bill to set up regulatory framework that would maintain the health and safety of the people, and I think we did.”
Lawmakers spent most of session painstakingly crafting a bill to safeguard water systems and above-ground storage tanks. The final product adds inspections for many storage tanks, requires more safety planning for water systems and includes long-term health monitoring for people exposed to the little known chemicals that spilled.
An abortion limitation bill is headed to the governor after the House approved it in an 83-15 vote around 10:15 p.m. The bill sparked days of debate about fetal pain and women’s rights before passing both Democratic chambers overwhelmingly. But House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, didn’t allow debate because of the late hour.
Tomblin said he has concerns over that bill. A court struck down a similar law in Arizona, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Both chambers agreed on a bill letting people with concealed-carry permits bring guns to city-owned recreational facilities, including swimming pools and after-school centers. The proposal would require people to store guns securely out of view and access to others.
Charleston Mayor Danny Jones called the bill “disgraceful.” He said it would threaten the safety of children. Tomblin expressed some concerns over the bill, but said he’s still reviewing it.
“There seemed to be a little bit of overlap about where you could or could not carry a gun,” Tomblin said.
Packs of six or so lawmakers crammed into hallways, corners and backs of the chambers to strike deals on other top issues, like the prescription-only cold medicine push. Lawmakers watered down the bill, offering to cut in half how much Sudafed-like medication someone can buy in a year. They also proposed letting counties set up referendums to make pseudoephedrine drugs prescription-only locally.
But time ran out on an agreement, which one bill advocate attributed to the pharmaceutical industry’s lobbying and ad campaigns against the bill.
“It’s absolutely shameful that the industry was able to frighten legislators so much that that we couldn’t get anything done this session,” said Del. Don Perdue, D-Wayne and health committee chairman.
The two chambers compromised on a minimum wage hike, which would bump the current standard – $7.25 per hour – by 75 cents a year for the next two years.
Plenty more issues were still looming. The House and Senate still weren’t on the same page about how much to raise the minimum wage and raises for teachers.
Tomblin said the state can live with the $1,000 pay increase endorsed by the House, even though he and the Senate proposed a smaller raise.
The Greenbrier resort succeeded in a last-minute push for millions of dollars in tax credits for a new medical facility. Tomblin said he will review the bill, but commented that “the concept of having that kind of service is a great thing.” The proposal did not arise formally until a Friday committee meeting.
Tomblin has 15 days from when lawmakers send him a bill to sign it, veto it or let it become law without his action.
Lawmakers won’t be out of the Capitol for long. Next week, the House and Senate will negotiate a compromised budget for the upcoming year. House Finance Chairman Del. Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, said the state is facing a $64 million shortfall. Lawmakers are looking to tap into at least $83.8 million of the state’s Rainy Day reserve account.