Part-time status leaves lawmakers hamstrung

It’s understandable that those holding leadership positions in the legislative branch of state government in West Virginia have an inferiority complex when it comes to their relative strength compared to those in the executive and judicial branches.

In the executive branch, the governor is in complete control and enjoys full-time status with a salary and other perks such as the executive mansion. Other executive officers who are elected like the secretary of state, treasurer and attorney general have full-time employment and the ability to hire many full-time employees.

The judicial branch is led by the five justices of the Supreme Court of Appeals. These individuals are elected to 12-year terms and can attend to their responsibilities without any interference from anyone else in state government.

But the 100 members of the House of Delegates and the 34 members of the state Senate work part time and have historically relied heavily on the full-time elected officials in the other two branches to help them determine the value of each potential new law or appropriation.

The governor, of course, also has the power to veto. i. e. reject, any bill passed by the Legislature if it is deemed to be bad law. The Legislature, however, can still override that veto by a two-thirds super-majority vote in both houses.

But the 134 lawmakers also continue to rely on information supplied by the executive branch to help them decide the fate of many bills, especially those that involve money. Currently, legislators rely solely on a so-called “fiscal note” that accompanies any bill involving money. This is nothing more than someone’s best judgment of how much money the legislation will yield — assuming it’s a tax increase or some other proposal to increase state government revenues.

It can also be an estimate of how much it will cost state government if it is a measure that would reduce state revenues, such as a reduction in taxes paid by the citizens. A recent example is the phase out of the consumer sales tax on food that was cut from 2 percent to 1 percent July 1, 2012, and will automatically be eliminated entirely on July 1, 2013.

Most legislators realize that a fiscal note prepared by any branch of the executive department of state government will be conservative if that department favors the proposal and will be extremely high if the department opposes the bill. Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, learned that the hard way when he introduced a bill to require daily physical education classes in public schools.

The state Department of Education opposed the idea so the fiscal note prepared by staff members in that executive agency provided a fiscal note estimating the cost would be $1.5 billion. No wonder legislators are exploring the possibility of creating an independent fiscal and policy office hired by the Legislature to compile necessary information including the costs or revenue level on all bills that are introduced.

Meanwhile, this state’s new program that requires mandatory drug testing for anyone seeking job training in Workforce West Virginia began July 16 and 14 people were tested the first week, members of the House-Senate Legislative Oversight Commission on Workforce Investment for Economic Development were told last week by Interim Director Russell Fry.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin established this program by executive order on April 24, claiming that the state is experiencing a drug abuse crisis that is hurting West Virginia’s economy. He had first mentioned the idea during a speech to members of the West Virginia Press Association back in January. Tomblin said too many people graduating from the WorkForce West Virginia training program are not being hired because they fail drug tests.

The screening tests applicants for 10 categories of drugs including marijuana, methamphetamine and synthetic drugs. Anyone testing positive is barred from training for 90 days and must take a followup screening. Those failing the second test cannot try again for a year. West Virginia apparently is one of only two states to adopt this program.

Health Research Systems, with offices in both West Virginia and Ohio, has a one-year contract to conduct the tests. This firm estimates it will conduct 900 screenings under the contract at a cost of about $42,000. There were some 2,200 people who participated in the training programs during the past year that will now be subject to the drug screening.

Finally, after more than a decade of political anonymity, Charlotte Pritt has recently made a comeback as the new leader of the Mountain State political party. She was not present on July 22 at the party’s convention in Sutton because of a family emergency but submitted a taped speech and was elected unanimously as chairwoman.

Pritt holds the dubious distinction of being the only person who has even beaten current U. S. Sen. Joe Manchin in an election. She beat him in the Democrat primary race for governor in 1996 but then lost to the Republican nominee, the late Cecil H. Underwood, in the general election later that year. And Manchin got his revenge by defeating Pritt in the 2000 Democratic primary race for secretary of state.

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