Governor grabs the lion’s share of agenda

The West Virginia Legislature seemed to be on cruise control heading into the final days and hours of this year’s 60-day regular session that ended last night.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin boasted by mid-week that he was confident all the major items on his legislative agenda would be approved.

There was even the suggestion by early last week that the House and Senate might be able to finish a day early this year. But it is well understood regardless of the workload, lawmakers would stay until midnight, recess for a few minutes and then reconvene briefly after 12 o’clock to begin the extended budget session. That way, they get paid for working Sunday and don’t have to return until Monday afternoon.

The governor’s first success came even before January was over when both sides passed his legislation — HB4086 — to provide millions of dollars in tax incentives to any company willing to build a multibillion-dollar ethane cracker plant in West Virginia. He was able to carry that news with him to Texas in late January when he met with potential developers.

Legislators also wasted little time approving legislation to pay down the state’s long-term liabilities for healthcare benefits for retired public employees, the so-called OPEB (Other Post Employment Benefits) legislation that is now a $5 billion liability for state government.

And just last Tuesday, both chambers finished work on the coal mine safety bill that resulted from the tragic explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County in 2010 that killed 29 coal miners.

About the only major concern that Gov. Tomblin has now is his desire to amend the state Constitution to allow him to run for a second, four-year term in 2016 if he wins his first full four-year term in November. He tried to sneak that provision into a proposed constitutional amendment primarily intended to provide for the election of a lieutenant governor if ratified by the voters.

But legislators removed that portion of the suggested constitutional amendment and now it seems even the idea of electing a lieutenant governor won’t be on the 2012 general election ballot to give voters an opportunity to make this decision.

Tomblin is expected to win his first four-year term as governor later this year. If he does, he’ll have future opportunities to try and get the Legislature to consider the issue of putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot in the 2014 general election to allow him to run again for his second full, four-year term in 2016.

A solution to the problem of the increasingly crowded conditions in the state’s prisons and regional jails as a result of the substance abuse problem in the state did not appear to be likely, especially any effort to come up with additional funding for substance abuse treatment.

Meanwhile, when the Legislature wants to stall an issue until next year, the most common practice is to adopt a resolution that requires an interim committee made up of members from both the Senate and House to conduct hearings and collect information at the three-day monthly interim committee meetings starting at the end of this session and continuing each month until the next legislative session begins in January of 2013.

Among those endorsed by the Senate Judiciary Committee late last week were a trio that deal with some of the more controversial issues in recent months. And the most interesting of the three is the one to study the idea of establishing an independent commission that would be responsible for determining the new boundary lines for the state’s three congressional districts after the U. S. Census every 10 years as well as well as the 17 Senate districts and the districts for the 100 members of the House of Delegates.

Currently the Legislature is assigned that responsibility and the most recent redistricting results were so controversial that there have been six separate lawsuits challenging these redistricting decisions. The prevailing public opinion seems to suggest members of the House of Delegates and state Senate have more concern about establishing boundaries that will be most helpful to their own re-election prospects.

Since that conclusion seems so obvious, it follows that the legislators studying this issue may reach the conclusion that it is in their best interest to keep this responsibility rather than turn it over to people who may have no interest in protecting the incumbent’s re-election chances.

Finally, two of the oldest facilities in the West Virginia State Capitol are the pair of elevators that operate close to the offices of the House Speaker and the Senate President on the Kanawha River side of the Capitol. They are not as efficient as the building’s other elevators on the opposite side of the legislative halls and those in the East and West wings that include service to the basement. All of these feature modern, sensitive doors that won’t close on boarding passengers.

Concerns for safety and an elevator inspector’s demands have forced the House of Delegates to hire an elevator operator at the rate of $10.50 an hour to assist visitors who might not be accustomed to doors that may try to close while passengers are boarding. However, the Senate side has managed to avoid this problem so far, perhaps because they don’t have committee rooms on the second floor like the House does.

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