With the West Virginia Legislature two-thirds of the way through its 2012 session, a pair of early and major successes has helped propel Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s 16-item agenda.
Tomblin’s proposed tax break for attracting a multibillion-dollar chemical plant became the session’s first bill to pass. The Democrat then won approval for his plan to cover the state’s last major unfunded liability, an estimated $5 billion shortfall from future public retiree health care costs.
“It’s kind of unusual that major pieces of legislation would be passed, would be finished so early,” said Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley.
With 20 days left in the session, the agenda’s two other key bills cleared committee hurdles this past week. One proposes various mine safety measures and is heading to a vote in the House of Delegates. It was amended to expand required random drug testing to all mine employees, not only certified miners.
“There are some differences of opinion, but I think we can resolve those and get that safety legislation passed,” Tomblin told The Associated Press on Friday. “What we’re aiming at is the people directly associated with the mining process.”
The Senate Health and Human Resources Committee endorsed the other bill, which among other things proposes that the state join a multistate computer system that tracks the sales of cold medicines that can be used to make methamphetamine. The committee rebuffed an attempt to require prescriptions for those medicines, however.
With scrutiny of Tomblin’s 2012-13 state budget plan ongoing, the rest of his agenda is moving as well. The House last week unanimously passed his bid to continue to exempt the state’s timber industry from the severance tax on natural resources. The House and Senate have exchanged his bills meant to aid the Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve. The 10,000-acre complex will host next year’s Boy Scout National Jamboree and is slated to be the home of the 2019 World Jamboree. Each event is expected to attract tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of people. Tomblin’s bills would ensure that medical professionals could volunteer at the jamborees, and that surrounding counties could provide needed school buses and drivers.
The Senate Education Committee has advanced the governor’s proposal that would give McDowell County schools more flexibility under state policies and laws to turn around ailing schools. The House Education Committee, meanwhile, has endorsed Tomblin’s bill expanding a teacher evaluation pilot project statewide.
Earlier this month, a unanimous Senate passed a version of Tomblin’s bid to crack down on drivers who text or talk on a cellphone that’s not hands-free. As amended, it would allow law enforcement to issue tickets for such conduct — but only after pulling over the motorist for some other offense. But the House has considered a different approach, in part by making such distracted driving a primary reason for a traffic stop for teens. Disagreements over targeting this behavior have doomed such legislation before.
Senate leaders, meanwhile, appear uninterested in Tomblin’s proposed constitutional amendment that would create an elected office of lieutenant governor. The West Virginia Constitution now has the Senate president succeed the governor when there’s a vacancy.
Tomblin was Senate president in 2010 when then-Gov. Joe Manchin resigned following his election to the U.S. Senate. But the state Supreme Court later ruled that Tomblin could only act as governor, and mandated than an elected chief executive take office within a year of Manchin’s departure. Tomblin won the special election that resulted.
The governor’s resolution would require the approval of two-thirds of the House and Senate, and then a majority of general election voters must agree to the constitutional change. Unger is among those who advocate that the amendment instead make clear that the president leaves the Legislature and becomes governor to fill a vacancy.
“I don’t know that it’s necessary to create a whole new office,” Unger said. “All you have to do is change a few words.”
House Republicans hold a similar view, and have tried without success to amend that chamber’s version of this measure. GOP delegates also question Tomblin’s bill that would increase the size of the state’s main emergency reserve while pledging future surpluses toward a new infrastructure fund.
“If we’re getting to the point where these surpluses are so large that we can set aside 15 percent in this rainy day fund, then our concern about that is that means we’re overtaxing the people of West Virginia,” said House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha. “We would like to ensure that we do nothing that will tie our hands in terms of getting tax reductions to the citizens and to the employers of West Virginia.”