Water crisis dams up other bills in Legislature

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Leaders of both houses in the West Virginia Legislature expressed confidence last Thursday that the state will “overcome the water problem” that has dominated the first half of the 2014 regular session. These observations came during speeches at the West Virginia Press Association’s annual breakfast at the Marriott Hotel in Charleston.

Coincidentally, that was the 30th day — the halfway mark of the session and House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, admitted that a lot of the major legislation is still in committee. He said he has referred SB373 — the legislation that deals with the Jan. 9 chemical leak into the Elk River that contaminated the drinking water for 300,000 West Virginians — to three separate committees in the House. This will delay the floor vote on the bill.

The Senate passed the bill by a unanimous vote Jan. 28. Miley said his decision to send the bill to three separate committees before it can come to the floor of the House for a final vote there is because “we want to find out what happened to our water.”

“But whatever product we come out with, I can tell you both sides are working together,” the said.

At the State Capitol last week, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin was also showing signs of wear and tear on this difficult, controversial problem. He convened an afternoon news conference two days after residents attending a public hearing in the House of Delegates chamber repeatedly complained about the way his administration was handling this crisis.

The governor admitted he was “frustrated and angry.” He told reporters, “I share your concerns about the water crisis.” But he cut short any suggestions that some home testing of tap water might help alleviate the problem. He said there was no way the state or federal government could take samples in all 100,000 homes and businesses impacted by the problem.

Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, suggested to newspaper executives and reporters at last Thursday’s Press Association breakfast that state officials might want to consider taking three to four samples of current water from residents in the 24 zones involved. He suggested as many as 96 test samples might cost a total of about $75,000.

Federal officials told The Charleston Gazette that the state had no plans for home testing and the federal government had decided not to press the Tomblin administration on this matter.

Everyone involved seems to have an opinion on this issue. The governor’s initial position was that the federal agencies were guilty of slow responses to the problem. But by last Wednesday’s press conference he was praising them for their assistance. Now perhaps the state will respond to the growing public demand for testing water in some private homes that have been affected by this event.

Meanwhile, a bill that would prohibit discrimination in housing and job applications based on sexual orientation has been introduced again in the state Senate during the current legislative session. Sen. Kessler has introduced the legislation several times and succeeded in getting it approved in the Senate only to see it always die in a House of Delegates committee.

“We’ve passed it a couple of times in the past in the Senate and sent it to the House of Delegates,” Kessler said. “They have new leadership this year. Whether it’s something they will be interested in taking up, I’ll address with the speaker as well.”

Just last year, same-sex marriage became legal in eight states, either by popular vote, court decision or legislative action. In Utah, the judicial system has stepped in and the U.S. Supreme Court has issued a stay on a federal judge’s decision that the law there is unconstitutional.

Kessler said that debate at the national level should make it easier for the Employment and Housing Nondiscrimination Act to pass this year. He said “folks can serve in the military and die for their county with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, but can’t live and work in West Virginia. That’s wrong.”



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