Amid successes, pay spat marks W.Va. session end

CHARLESTON (AP) — After passing large-scale measures that aim to improve public schools and reduce crime, one issue proved too vexing for the West Virginia Legislature on the final day of its 2013 session: magistrate pay raises.

The 2013 session ended Saturday with the Senate and House of Delegates unable to agree on how many county magistrates and top court staff should get salary increases. Senators sought to limit raises mostly to counties that saw court pay cut this year because of declining populations. The House version of that bill would have benefited three times as many magistrates as well as staff.

As the two sides sought leverage on the final day, the pay raise spat dragged down an unrelated economic development bill. That proposal would have allowed tax-supported financing for a $44 million baseball stadium and highway interchange project in Morgantown. The session’s midnight deadline arrived without action on either measure.

GOP lawmakers consider that outcome another example of what they call the blown opportunities and misplaced priorities that stymied the session. Noting that just minutes remained on the clock Saturday, Sen. Clark Barnes counted the doomed Morgantown project bill as one of just a few proposed during the 60 days that offered genuine economic development.

“We have dealt, in this house, and we have dealt in this Legislature, with menial things,” the Randolph County Republican told colleagues. “The people that we were sent here to represent, those people are disappointed tonight. … We could have created a few jobs, but the opportunity is passed.”

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and his fellow Democrats who hold majorities in the Legislature disagree with such views. They cited the two key items from Tomblin’s largely successful session agenda. One responds to the critical audit of West Virginia’s public education system. Signed last week, its 148 pages give county school districts more control over the annual calendar and educator hiring, reward teachers who attain national certification or serve in critical-need areas, and advances the Democratic governor’s goals for grade school reading and high school college and career readiness.

“This has basically been a two-year process,” the governor told The Associated Press late Saturday, referring to the audit and the subsequent statewide series of public hearings on its findings. “There are so many good things in this bill.”

Tomblin’s other major agenda item responds to a separate pressing crisis, the rapid growth of the state’s already overflowing prison population. Passed Saturday, this measure promotes supervised release and local-level counseling and rehabilitation services to target the drug addiction and relapsed criminal behavior blamed for driving the state’s inmate numbers. That legislation also responds to an in-depth study, this one by the Justice Reinvestment Initiative of the Justice Center at the nonpartisan Council of State Governments.

“This bill will save the state an estimated $140 million over the next five years, committing $25.5 million of these savings for community-based substance abuse treatment programs for persons released on probation or parole,” the governor said in a statement following the session’s finale.

House Speaker Richard Thompson referred to several lower-profile measures as signs of a productive session. Lawmakers passed several follow-ups to the governor’s education bill, mostly to increase local oversight of schools. Public safety bills will strengthen the state’s seatbelt law, enlist wireless providers to track suspected abduction victims and provide body armor to deputy sheriffs. The Wayne County Democrat also touted a new program that will allow lawmakers to form traveling study groups in coming months to focus on what’s creating and hurting jobs in West Virginia.

“While lawmakers dealt with a few initiatives that gained a great deal of attention … we also worked steadily and successfully on a wide range of lower profile, but truly meaningful pieces of legislation,” Thompson said in a post-session statement.

Supporters of the Morgantown project are considering appealing to Tomblin to convene a brief special session to revive that measure while also perhaps resolving the magistrate pay impasse. The Legislature is meeting in extended session this week to complete a 2013-14 state budget.

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