By Jonathan Mattise
Facing a deadline to keep bills from fizzling, West Virginia lawmakers gave the go-ahead to all sorts of ideas Wednesday, from budget cuts and teacher raises to bans on selling bongs and permission to bring cupcakes to school parties.
On the Legislature’s last day to pass bills in the chamber where they started, the House of Delegates cleared $39 million in budget cuts. The bill would trim funds to pay for water and sewer infrastructure needs and lower subsidies for dog- and horse-track owners and casinos. The cuts also would take $5.4 million in renovation cash from the state Capitol and its iconic golden dome.
Senate lawmakers worked in the other direction Wednesday. Amid a budget shortfall, the upper chamber approved an across-the-board pay raise of $837 for school teachers.
After clearing the House or Senate, the budget bills — and plenty of other measures that passed Wednesday — head to the opposite chambers, as the March 8 conclusion of the 60-day legislative session looms. They’ll have to compete with other pressing proposals that already passed out of one chamber, such as a push to regulate aboveground storage tanks after last month’s chemical spill tainted the water supply for 300,000 people.
Lawmakers still have work to do to balance the state budget, as law requires. With 2014 elections approaching, House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, has ruled out raising taxes. The Legislature could take up to $200 million from state reserves to make the numbers work, he said. It would be the first time lawmakers tapped into their $915 million rainy-day account for a budget shortfall.
The House charged through about 60 bills Wednesday, passing priorities to outlaw selling bongs and bowls, legalize fireworks, let women breastfeed in public, require state agencies to buy American goods in certain cases and let kids eat some cupcakes and baked goods at school parties.
House members agreed on letting the state’s horizontal-well drillers dump some waste into landfills. And they passed a measure that could let voters decide if the Boy Scouts of America can rent out a massive Fayette County facility without jeopardizing its tax-exempt status.
One of the most controversial proposals didn’t get a House vote Wednesday, however, essentially killing the bill for 2014.
A proposed campaign-finance bill would have required politically active nonprofits to list a few of their top donors on TV or radio ads they buy. But Delegate Tim Manchin, a Marion Democrat and bill sponsor, said the proposal didn’t have the votes to pass.
Manchin said the National Rifle Association, the anti-abortion group West Virginians for Life and the tea party group Americans for Prosperity opposed the measure. They argued it would stifle free speech. House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, agreed.
“I think we’re going to continue to see millions of dollars of out-of-state money come in for campaign ads against candidates, and we’re never going to know who paid for them, or at least not in time,” Manchin said.
The House and Senate are close to agreement on one issue, however. Both passed similar bills Wednesday letting school resource officers carry guns while at work in schools.