‘Fat possum’ in the House — Senate too

One of the best known and least understood features of each session at the West Virginia Legislature is fondly known as a “fat possum” bill. It is so named because it travels quietly under the radar screen of most people to avoid attention.

A prime example this year was exposed to the sunlight in the House of Delegates last week after having been ignored by most because it came soon after an emotional floor debate on the coal mine safety bill.

Committee Substitute for HB4392 will give pay raises to magistrates in the state’s smaller counties — nearly double what they were paid 10 years ago. And until last Tuesday, this proposed legislation was not a high profile bill.

But then Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, stood up and opposed the bill. He had the audacity to suggest a pay hike from $33,625 in 2003 to $57,500 starting July 1, 2012 was too much at a time when the per capita income in West Virginia is a mere $27,334. But the House passed the bill, 65-30, and it now goes to the Senate where it seems likely to pass as well.

The county magistrate system was created as a substitute for the old justice of the peace and constable system in magisterial districts by ratification of a constitutional amendment in 1984. To date, there has always been a two-tier level of salaries for not only the magistrates but also for the magistrate court clerks, the magistrate assistants and the magistrate court deputy clerks. Each county’s population determines whether its magistrates receive the higher salary or the lower salary and the same holds true for the other staff members.

According to a fiscal note supplied by the Supreme Court the entire cost of this legislation for increased pay and benefits for 38 magistrates, 19 magistrate clerks, 38 magistrate assistants and two deputy magistrate clerks will be $583,100 annually. And it will be particularly appealing to four counties — Lewis, McDowell, Wetzel and Wyoming. As a result of the 2010 U. S. Census, these counties otherwise would drop into the lower salary category where each magistrate serves “fewer than 8,400 in population.”

The companion bill in the state Senate, SB483, has no less than 16 sponsors beginning with Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall. So it seems certain the proposal will be favorably received there. But when the message from the House was received in the Senate last week, it was referred to both the Judiciary and Finance committees so all 33 members of the Senate except for Kessler will get a look at the bill before it is sent to the floor for a final vote.

Delegate Lane and his fellow Republicans did get a small victory last week. They had enough votes to prevent a two-thirds majority vote to make HB4392 effective July 1, 2012 only because there were five Democrats absent for the 66-29 roll call vote. And it was a hollow victory even then because the failure of the vote means the law would become effective in 90 days — which would be earlier than July 1.

The bill is now in the Senate where it figures to get the same approval during the final week of the session. So equal pay for all county magistrates and staff members seems likely to become a reality at this legislative session even if the light has been turned on to reveal this latest “fat possum.”

Meanwhile, maybe the fourth time will be the charm for making failure to wear your seat belt while driving a primary offense in West Virginia. The state Senate passed the bill again last week and Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, is hoping this year the House of Delegates will finally give in and pass it as well.

Under existing law it is a secondary offense which means you must be pulled over for some primary traffic offense such as speeding before the police officer can also charge you with failure to have your seat belt engaged.

Most of the traffic safety attention this session has been devoted to legislation to cope with use of cell phones for calls and texting while driving.

Palumbo is openly optimistic this time, as always. He said the use of seat belts by West Virginia drivers has been increasing even though it remains a secondary violation. And he notes that in states where the offense has moved up from secondary to primary — there are 32 of them now — there is always an increase in seat belt usage.

Finally, it’s no surprise that the five members of the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled last week that Wood County Republican Frank Deem cannot run against incumbent Sen. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, in the 2012 GOP primary election for the state Senate. The state Constitution clearly says the two senators from a state Senate district composed of more than one county cannot be residents of the same county.

One of the two senators in each of the state’s 17 senatorial districts is elected every four years. Sen. David Nohe, R-Wood, defeated Deem in the 2010 GOP primary and is now serving with Boley. The attorneys representing Boley made it clear that even if it’s bad policy for a county with 82 percent of the population in a senatorial district to be limited to only one of the two senators, it’s up to the voters to change the constitutional provisions. And it’s hard to quarrel with that argument.

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