The Times West Virginian

West Virginia

March 13, 2011

Lawmakers pass pay raises on final day

CHARLESTON — West Virginia’s teachers and state employees won pay raises but rules governing Marcellus natural gas drilling foundered as the Legislature moved to wrap up its regular session late Saturday.

The House and Senate also disagreed over how to attack the state’s $8 billion shortfall for retiree health care costs. But they passed several remaining items from the agenda of acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

Those included a proposal allowing short-term state loans to West Virginia’s jobless benefits fund, and a bill elevating the veterans’ affairs office to a Cabinet department. A measure targeting school dropouts was awaiting final Senate approval.

The Legislature also approved requiring public and private insurers to cover a treatment considered crucial for children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. The bill exempts small employers, and also caps benefits.

While the regular session was to end at midnight, lawmakers planned to remain at the Capitol for about a week to finish a new state budget. The 60-day session was to be the first completed without an elected governor. Tomblin, the Senate’s president, has been serving as acting governor under the state constitution’s succession provision.

Democrat Joe Manchin, who was elected to the U.S. Senate last fall, resigned as governor Nov. 15 with more than two years left in his second term as the state’s chief executive.

The successful pay raise measure also increases salaries for the state’s elected judicial officers. All six Senate Republicans opposed it, as did 24 of the House’s 35 GOP delegates with one absence.

A party-line vote also marked legislative approval of a state-run health insurance exchange. Although the federal health care overhaul calls for each state to set up an exchange, Republicans decried the measure. House Democrats rebuffed a barrage of GOP amendments Saturday largely meant to delay or curtail creation of an exchange. Two amendments were blocked on procedural grounds, including one targeting coverage of elective abortions.

Insurance Commissioner Jane Cline, who has championed the proposal, said abortion coverage is a non-issue. An exchange aims to allow individuals and small businesses to pool their buying power while choosing among coverage plans offered by private insurers.

Republicans cited ongoing legal challenges and repeal efforts to argue against the bill. They also warned of the as-yet-unknown price tag.

The partisan clash over pay raises came as Democrats went beyond the one-time, bonus-like payment proposed by Tomblin. His measure relied on unspent surplus funds. The House-Senate compromise would instead cost $67 million annually in general tax and lottery revenue.

Republicans questioned that growth in spending, particularly after failed attempts to convert a 1 percentage-point reduction in the food tax to a complete repeal. The 1 percentage-point reduction that passed Thursday would save consumers around $26 million. A complete repeal would cost general revenue $75 million, state officials estimated.

The pay-raise package includes $1,488 for teachers, $970 for troopers, $835 for natural resources police and $500 for school workers. State employees would see 2 percent increases, though within a $500 to $1,200 range.

Judicial salaries had been a sticking point. But they would rise by $7,500 for county magistrates, by $12,000 for family court judges, by $10,000 for circuit judges and by $15,000 for the Supreme Court’s five justices.

The bill’s biggest boost would be to the salary for adjutant general, which would go up from $92,500 to $125,000 a year. Lawmakers said that raise would bring that salary to the level of other top officials. Now-retired Gen. Allen Tackett had routinely turned down additional pay.

Regulating Marcellus development proved among the session’s thorniest topics. Though it is considered one of the world’s richest natural gas reserves, tapping the mile-deep shale field often involves a horizontal drilling method and a water-intensive fracturing process.

With the upfront costs and potential profits sizable, industry sparred throughout the 60 days with environmental advocates and surface owners. Issues included well spacing, advance notice to property owners, road damage, and the potential effects of hydraulic fracturing on area water supplies.

The House had expanded the scaled-back regulatory proposal passed earlier in the session by the Senate. But the amended bill idled in the session’s waning hours.

Time also appeared short for a House-amended plan targeting other post-employment benefit, or OPEB, costs. With a funding gap estimated at $8 billion, these non-pension costs are mostly for retiree health coverage.

The Senate had proposed easing the OPEB burden of county school boards, while eventually capping retiree health premium subsidies. The House increased those caps. Delegates also tapped emergency reserves for $250 million toward this liability, plus future general tax revenues, before passing its version 82-17.

Senators later removed that transfer, which Tomblin also opposes, and awaited further House action on the bill.

In other action:

• West Virginia lawmakers have approved a measure that would provide more money for secondary roads by increasing motor vehicle fees.

Supporters say the legislation will provide $43.5 million more in annual road revenues. The Senate passed it 27-6 Saturday. The House had approved it Friday, 58-39. The votes reflected criticism of hiking fees on residents during an economic recovery.

The measure would raise about two dozen Division of Motor Vehicle fees. They include the cost for a regular driver’s license, which would increase from $12.50 to $32.50.

Registering a passenger vehicle would cost $45, a $16.50 hike. Vehicle title fees would more than quadruple, from $5 to $21.

Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Saturday he’ll consider the bill.

• The Legislature has approved a bill that would require West Virginia senior citizens to pay $25 for lifetime hunting and fishing licenses starting next year.

The House of Delegates passed the bill 66-32 Saturday, agreeing with a Senate amendment. It now goes to acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

The Senate amendment calls for the Division of Natural Resources to work with the Division of Motor Vehicles to add a hunting and fishing endorsement to driver’s licenses.

West Virginians age 65 and older currently don’t need outdoors licenses. The measure would create a new Class XS license for residents who turn 65 after Jan. 1, 2012.

Supporters say the $25 fee will help draw matching federal funds for outdoor sporting programs.

Lawmakers have debated a lifetime license for several years.

• West Virginia could host mixed martial arts events under legislation passed by the state Legislature.

The Senate voted 23-10 in favor of the measure Saturday.The House then approved it 71-26, sending it to the desk of acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

Opponents criticized the sport’s violence and argued it would hurt boxing. Supporters pushed the sport in part because it could bring in national sporting events.

Mixed martial arts combines elements of karate, judo, jujitsu and kickboxing. Of the 48 states with athletic commissions, all sanction the sport except West Virginia, Connecticut, New York and Vermont.

• West Virginia lawmakers have passed legislation that would establish criminal penalties for protesting at funerals despite a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding such pickets.

The state Senate passed the measure Saturday after accepting changes made in the House of Delegates earlier in the week. If acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signs the measure, demonstrating at a funeral or memorial service would be a misdemeanor.

The measure responds to numerous anti-gay protests by a Kansas-based fundamentalist group. The Westboro Baptist Church has picketed military funerals and last year celebrated the death of 29 coal miners in the Upper Big Branch mine disaster.

In an 8-1 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the group’s protests were protected by the First Amendment.

• West Virginia lawmakers have passed a bill protecting journalists from disclosing confidential sources in most legal proceedings.

The House of Delegates passed the measure Saturday, agreeing to a Senate amendment on the final day of the 60-day legislative session. The measure now goes to acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin for his signature.

The bill would shield reporters from being required to identify confidential sources in civil and criminal trials, before grand juries and in administrative proceedings. It also covers documents that could identify a source.

The bill exempts testimony that would prevent imminent death, serious bodily injury or unjust imprisonment. It also offers protection to student and part-time journalists.

• Some West Virginia communities can count on state financing to reduce river pollution.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is restricting nitrogen and phosphorus levels in waterways that flow into the Chesapeake Bay. That means 13 West Virginia communities must modernize their wastewater treatment plants.

The House of Delegates voted 86-12 Saturday to pledge $6 million in annual lottery revenues toward the necessary construction bonds. They also included two Greenbrier River treatment plants in that funding. EPA has warned of pollution levels in that waterway as well.

A unanimous Senate approved the final bill. Supporters say the upgrades will help avoid more drastic measures from EPA.

• West Virginia is beefing up ethics rules governing an array of elected and appointed public officials.

The state Senate and House of Delegates unanimously approved a compromise Saturday requiring most officials to disclose their spouses’ employment and finances.

Officials already report such information about themselves. The pending bill would mandate additional details for their disclosures.

The measure also imposes a one-year waiting period before certain officials can lobby. Those include all state-level elected officers, Cabinet secretaries and agency chiefs. It would also extend to an array of professional staffers of all these officials.

The Ethics Commission would post many of these reports online. The bill goes to acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

• West Virginia’s horse and dog tracks would get state help to buy new gambling machines under a bill approved by the state Legislature.

The Senate passed the measure Saturday, the final day of the 2011 session. It now goes to acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin for his signature.

Senator Herb Snyder says the bill would allow the four tracks to buy new machines then apply to the state for grants covering half the cost. Up to $10 million a year in money the state collects from the casinos would be available.

The Jefferson County Democrat says the aim is to help the state’s tracks buy new equipment to better compete with newer casinos in neighboring states.

The bill also would allow wagering on televised races at The Greenbrier. The historic resort recently opened a casino.

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