The bills that don’t come due

The legislative session in Charleston is now, for most intents and purposes, over. There is work yet left to be done on the budget but there won’t be any more legislation to worry about for now. We can all breathe a sigh of relief and look over the damage, or in some cases, the good things that made it through the Legislature, or didn’t. Sometimes the good news lies in what didn’t get passed.

A case in point is House Bill 4490, legislation that has come to be called by many “the anti-Patrick Morrisey bill” that has garnered a considerable amount of negative attention for West Virginia. According to an article in the National Review, “A lot of Democrats and trial lawyers who had benefited from the gravy train established by Morrisey’s predecessors suddenly found themselves without a patron. So instead of finding honest work, they launched a mudslinging campaign to discredit and undermine Morrisey’s office.”

The article goes on to say that the legislation would have effectively crippled the office prohibiting the attorney general from participating in a large number of cases, particularly those that challenge federal overreach. “Morrisey’s opponents have apparently concluded that if he won’t go along in treating the AG’s office as the servant of a corrupt patronage system, then the best course is to gut his office and distribute its authority to more ‘reliable’ lawyers,” says the National Review.

The proposed legislation caught the attention of a bipartisan group of attorneys general that banded together to come to his defense. According to the Parkersburg News and Sentinel, “In the continuing debate over HB 4490, the National Association of Attorneys General, along with a bipartisan group of attorneys general representing 36 states, districts and territories, sent a letter to the leadership of the West Virginia Legislature Friday outlining its concerns on the bill … ”

One of the predecessors alluded to above is, of course, former Attorney General Darrell McGraw, who Morrisey defeated in the last election. As reported by West Virginia Watchdog in July of 2010, in a study, McGraw was deemed the fifth-worst attorney general in the nation. Among the issues cited was a $2 million award to an outside attorney, to which West Virginia Watchdog added this comment, “McGraw is also taken to task for reaping huge monetary awards, but choosing to not place those monies in the state treasury.”

By contrast, after taking office, Morrisey discontinued that practice, taking the initiative to turn over “those moneys” to the Legislature. He also reformed the office by instituting a policy of competitive bidding for the hiring of outside attorneys. This appears to have provoked the wrath of the trial lawyers in West Virginia who seem to have an aversion to the concept of competitive bidding.

HB 4490 passed in the House of Delegates along party lines. However, the good news is that in the Senate the bill didn’t make it out of committee, averting what could have been a constitutional crisis and further damage to our state’s reputation. Local legislators Stephen Skinner and Tiffany Lawrence both voted in favor of HB 4490.

Although HB 4490 is now dead, the House continues its antics. Consider this quote from an article published in West Virginia Metro News last week carrying the headline, “House committee guts Attorney General’s consumer protection fund”: “The House of Delegates Finance Committee made a late night move Monday to restore proposed budget cuts to several state programs by taking money from state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s Consumer Protection Fund.”

Apparently, with regard to the Democrats in House, it appears that no good deed goes unpunished and if you have problems with consumer protection issues in the future you might consider the actions of the Finance Committee.

Another bill that passed the house but did not survive the Senate was HB 4354. It’s been dubbed by some as the “Freedom of Speech Registration Act.” This legislation appeared to target lobbyists by placing additional reporting and registration requirements on those activities. However, there was concern over what activities might be included in the definition of “lobbyist.” There’s a difference between professional lobbyists that wine and dine legislators and grassroots activists that promote their particular causes. In other words, if you got together with a group of like-minded individuals and handed out fliers advocating for a cause, could you be considered a lobbyist? Would you be required to register with the state government for permission to do so? There was a considerable public outcry over the bill with regard to freedom of speech concerns and the right to petition our government.

Finally, there was the so called “Sudafed Bill” that would have required West Virginians to obtain a prescription before being able to buy certain cold remedies that are currently sold over the counter. The ironies abound. With regard to drug abuse, prescription drugs represent the fastest-growing type of drug abuse in the state of West Virginia. You can’t make this stuff up. Placing restrictions on law-abiding citizens only causes problems for those that have respect for the law and leads to the inevitable “unintended consequences.” Imagine having to take off from work to go to the doctor to get a prescription for Sudafed.

In the just-concluded legislative session, approximately 200 bills have been “completed.” It will take some time before we’ll know what the Legislature hath wrought. Sometimes it’s important to consider what didn’t “get done” and then to count our blessings. As in the quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” In other words, keep a close eye on the Legislature, you never know what they’ll come up with next.

— Elliot Simon writes from Harpers Ferry


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