The Times West Virginian

April 14, 2013

Inmate bill passes as session winds down

Measure to address prison overcrowding was a key proposal in Tomblin’s agenda

By David Gutman and Lawrence Messina
Associated Press

CHARLESTON — West Virginia will target its inmate crowding crisis by expanding supervised release and community-based drug treatment, among other steps, after the Legislature passed another key proposal Saturday from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s agenda.

With the session ending at midnight, lawmakers also approved an attempt to improve student performance and attack child poverty with a bill to expand school breakfast and lunch programs to more students. The children of slain troopers would get more help attending college under a successful bill amended so it also offers the scholarship benefit to the families of all law enforcement killed in the line of duty. Other measures approved would extend maternity coverage to the dependent children of insurance policyholders and increase the take-home pay of most circuit judges by reducing their pension contributions.

A special House-Senate committee sought compromise for a proposal to extend an experiment that handed more self-governance to a handful of cities. Delegates don’t want cities in the pilot program to have more restrictive gun ordinances than the rest of the state. That would force Charleston to void several of its laws to stay in the pilot. A draft compromise would allow partial firearms bans for municipal property, while allowing up to 20 more cities and towns to apply to join.

The two bodies also disagreed over Tomblin’s effort to require blood tests for drivers suspected of being under the influence of drugs. The Senate prevailed, and arrested drivers will not be punished for refusing a blood test, although police will have extra time to seek a warrant for such a test. The House and Senate differed as well over how to respond to 2010 Census results that cut pay for county magistrates and top court staffers in four counties.

Senators voted down a bill making it a crime to leak grand jury information, then later reconsidered and passed it. Mingo County Sheriff Eugene Crum requested that legislation before he was shot dead earlier this month, said Delegate Justin Marcum, a Democrat and assistant prosecutor from that county.

Crum complained that three drug suspects fled the state and a fourth had time to destroy evidence because a grand juror tipped them off, Marcum said Saturday. It was another Mingo County Democrat, Sen. Truman Chafin, who triggered the bill’s initial defeat after arguing it was too intrusive.

The student poverty measure, the Feed to Achieve Act, requires all schools to try to maximize school meal participation in order to take greater advantage of federal money for meals. It recommends programs such as “grab and go” breakfasts and eating breakfast in class as ways to increase participation.

It mandates that each county set up a fund to solicit private donations to expand and improve their school lunch programs. Senate Majority Leader John Unger, the bill’s sponsor, said feeding young children in school is an economic development issue.

“What attracts companies the most? We can give all the tax breaks in the world; we can give them free land,” the Berkeley County Democrat said. “But if you don’t have a workforce that’s not on drugs, that’s not on disability, that can’t come to a job, companies will not locate here in West Virginia.”

The Legislature opted to continue public financing of Supreme Court campaigns after what they considered a successful pilot project. Concerns about public confidence in the courts prompted the pilot as an alternative to traditional campaign fundraising. The legislation increases available funds to $300,000 for a contested primary and $525,000 for a contested general election campaign.

The state will save $6 million next year as a result of Tomblin’s proposal to eliminate state tax credits for alternative fuel vehicles like plug-in and electric cars. More tax dollars will be coming from Tomblin’s proposal to collect sales tax from online retailers that have a physical presence in the state. That would apply to Amazon.com, which recently opened a customer service center in Huntington.

Tomblin had also wanted employers to have more time to pay fired or discharged workers, a concern raised by the state Chamber of Commerce. The Legislature complied, changing the deadline from 72 hours to four business days, or the next scheduled payday, whichever comes first. Other successful agenda items stiffen fines for pipeline safety fines, following a non-fatal fire sparked by a December line rupture, and aim to help the state Medicaid program recover costs. The latter responds to a Supreme Court ruling that greatly limited the program’s share of a multimillion medical negligence settlement won on behalf of a Medicaid patient.

A Tomblin proposal to study how any given bill would create, maintain or cost jobs in the state failed earlier in the week under the weight of committee amendments that broadened its focus to include such areas as child poverty, the environment, veterans and seniors.

Along with a wide-ranging education measure passed and signed before the final day, the inmate crowding bill was a major proposal of the governor’s. It draws from a study of the state’s crisis by the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project of the Justice Center at the nonpartisan Council of State Governments.

“We have two alternatives: building a new, probably $200 million prison and keep expanding the problem or trying the route we’re taking and following the advice of Justice Reinvestment,” Tomblin said following the bill’s final passage.

Tomblin said he was disappointed that lawmakers removed language placing nonviolent offenders on supervised release for the final six months of their term. But the governor said he accepted compromise language that handed early release decisions to the sentencing judge.

The Legislature will spend this week in extended session completing a new state budget.