By RUSTY MARKS
The State Journal
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Members of the West Virginia Senate had a busy day Saturday, March 11, passing 13 bills, advancing 25 more and discussing more than a dozen in committee.
With the 60-day legislative session half over, Senators felt the need to come in over the weekend to get more work done.
Among legislation passed by the Senate during the Saturday session was Senate Bill 441, which would make the home rule pilot program permanent. The program allows participating cities to adopt their own sales taxes and make certain other rules and regulations. The bill would allow home rule to be extended to any municipality that wanted to take advantage of the provisions.
The legislation, known as Erin’s Law, currently makes it a misdemeanor to leave the scene of an accident if someone is hurt, and a felony if someone is killed. The new version, already approved by the House, adds a felony charge if a person is seriously injured or if the injury results in the death of an unborn child.
Senators were hoping for a quick and conflict-free day, but debate arose over a bill that would remove the mandate for circuit courts to set up drug courts to keep nonviolent drug offenders out of prison. Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said the legislation, Senate Bill 492, was intended to keep drug courts in circuits that already have them, but not force the few that have not adopted drug courts to do so.
Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, said drug courts are needed in all 55 counties. He said 28 drug courts currently serve 46 counties.
More than 1,000 people have graduated from drug courts so far, and 474 are currently participating in the program, he said. He said recidivism rates for drug court graduates are much lower than those convicted of drug crimes who don’t go through drug courts.
The cost to the state to put someone through drug court is about $7,000 a year, compared to about $27,000 a year to send them to prison, Weld said.
But Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said some judges just don’t want to establish drug courts, and likely never will.
Senators also got a workout in committees on Saturday. The committee on government organization approved a bill that would allow liquor to be sold on Sundays, although there was some debate in the committee because the bill also would increase the markup on liquor. The bill will go to the finance committee for further discussion.
The Senate committee on natural resources approved a bill that would give raises to state conservation officers. Senators were told pay for DNR law enforcement needed to be raised to be more in line with other police officers.
The bill would raise the lowest base salaries for a new DNR officer from about $26,000 to about $31,000 a year and would raise the base pay of a lieutenant colonel at the top of the pay scale from about $53,000 to about $59,000. The raises would cost the state about $1 million a year, but senators were told the money would come from special revenue accounts and hunting licenses and other fees.
Also Saturday, the judiciary committee approved a bill that would exempt the names and addresses of people with hunting licenses from requests under the state Freedom of Information Act. Names and addresses would still be available to law enforcement officers under the provisions of the bill.