Hot-button concerns get front-burner treatment

The 2013 60-day regular session of the West Virginia Legislature doesn’t really get under way until Feb. 13, but during last week’s three days of interim committee meetings in Charleston — along with the formal opening of the session on Wednesday, Jan. 9 — it was inevitable that some hot-button issues would surface early.

Among them, lawmakers are going to be asked to help comply with a court order to make major changes at the Industrial Home for Youth at Salem.

Circuit Judge Omar J. Aboulhosn issued an order last month setting the end of the 2013 session as a deadline for legislators to come up with needed changes or else he will issue an order mandating those changes.

It was a legal challenge of conditions in Building A at the Harrison County facility that prompted the judge’s decision and in his order he describes spare furnishings, small windows and cells that lack bathrooms and conditions that treat the young inmates there the same whether they’ve committed a minor misdemeanor or a serious felony.

Legislators in both chambers will also have to cope with hundreds of adamant volunteer firefighters around the state who insist a proposal to change the law to add four members to the state Fire Commission must guarantee the governor appoint someone to represent them. The proposal currently indicates the governor “may” appoint three members from the West Virginia State Firemens Association.

Leaders of the state-supported colleges and universities have submitted a proposal for $18 million in capital improvements at the state’s colleges and universities and have indicated they expect the Legislature to allocate $10 million of that from state funds. An official with the state’s Higher Education Policy Commission, said that request was whittled down from nearly $1 billion in funding requests from the schools.

Another issue involving public schools is a bill recommended for passage at the 2013 session that would expand the current ban on sugary soft drinks in elementary and junior high schools so that it would apply also to public high schools.

Members of the legislative committee were told that already all but one of the state’s 55 counties has eliminated sugary soft drinks in public high schools.

Expansion of the initial “home rule” pilot program, which originally was limited to Charleston, Huntington, Wheeling and Bridgeport for a five-year trial and now expanded to four more other cities with population of 2,000 or more between now and 2018 is also attracting a lot of early interest. But Republican members in the House of Delegates, now holding 46 of the 100 seats after the 2012 general election, continue to oppose the idea after trying unsuccessfully to repeal the program last year.

Another growing problem that was presented to the Legislature’s Select Committee on Veterans Affairs was the alarming number of West Virginia veterans who are “a significant risk” to commit suicide, according to West Virginia University researcher Joseph Scotti, who told committee members “this 20 percent is fairly significant,” and emphasized that it cuts across all age groups, even WWII veterans.

Meanwhile, one thorny issue that could be a controversial subject at this year’s legislative session hopefully was put to rest during a joint House-Senate judiciary subcommittee meeting last week in Charleston when members voted 6-4 against asking the full joint committee to recommend a bill that would have added five more county magistrates to the current list of 158.

The proposed legislation became a “Christmas tree” in the subcommittee after starting out as a simple plan to allow Monongalia County — now with four magistrates — to have one more because of the growing population there.

But then members of the subcommittee began amending the bill to add a magistrate in Berkeley County as well. Then it was another magistrate for Kanawha County. And one more for Raleigh County. And finally, one more magistrate in Wood County, too.

Fortunately, the subcommittee apparently realized such a bill on the floor of the House of Delegates or the State Senate would attract other amendments to add a magistrate here and there, despite the annual cost of $80,000 for each of the 158 magistrates currently serving in the state’s 55 counties.

Finally, a $248 million computer contract the state Department of Health and Human Resources signed last month with Molina Medicaid Solutions — believed to be the largest single contract in West Virginia state government history — is being challenged by Xerox Corporation.

Molina currently runs the DHHR’s Medicaid Management Information System that is expected to process more than 18 million claims a year for West Virginia’s 420,000 Medicaid recipients.

Both Charleston attorney Carte Goodwin, a former U.S. Senator, and James Kirby, a former top attorney for the state’s Department of Administration, are representing Xerox in the case. Tom Heywood, who was involved in Tombin’s two campaigns for governor, has been retained by Texas-based HP Enterprise Services, another company competing for this lucrative contract. Former DHHR Secretary Ruth Ann Panepinto has been employed by Molina and former state insurance commissioner Jane Cline has lobbied for Molina.

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