At the Capitol: Bills moving through Legislature at rapid pace

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Unlike past legislative sessions, where momentum for the 60-day session builds slowly, the 2015 regular session passed the one-third mark with a flurry of bills advancing in both houses.
The fast pace of the legislative session prompted Senate Democrats to attempt a procedural move to slow down a bill to repeal the state’s prevailing wage law (SB361), which they contend is being railroaded through the Legislature by the new Republican leadership.
That push, they say, is despite considerable opposition from not only from construction workers who stand to have their wages cut if the law is repealed, but from state building contractors, who fear that it will allow out-of-state companies to be able to sweep in and underbid for contracts for state-funded construction projects.

“They’re apparently ignoring all the cries from the businesses I’m hearing, and all the labor folks I’m hearing,” said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall. “I have yet to see anyone who’s told
me they’re in favor of this bill, outside of this chamber.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said the issue is simple: Should construction workers be paid higher wages for working on publicly funded construction projects than for private-sector jobs?

Proponents of the bill contend that prevailing wage, which essentially requires contractors on publicly funded construction projects to pay union-scale wages to workers, overly inflates costs and limits the
number of public works projects that can be funded in any given year. The vote on Kessler’s motion to send the bill back to Senate Government Organization Committee was rejected by a 16-18 vote along
party lines.

Among other bills on the fast-track:

— Legislation to prohibit abortions beyond the 20th week of pregnancy (HB2568). The bill is similar to one that passed the Legislature in 2014, but was vetoed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who said he had been advised by attorneys that the bill was unconstitutional.

Proponents of the bill want to prevent late-term abortions, believing that fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks gestation. The bill is one of several that legislative leaders want to get passed early in the
2015 session, so that the Legislature will still be in session to override any vetoes by the governor.

— Election bills, including bills for nonpartisan election of Supreme Court, circuit court, family court judges and magistrates (HB2010), and to prohibit straight ticket voting on ballots (SB249).

If approved, judicial elections would be non-partisan races that would take place during the May primary election, similar to the way county school board members are elected. Besides taking party politics out of
the elections, proponents say it would cut down on campaign costs for judicial candidates, who would run in a single nonpartisan election, instead of primary and general elections.

— A number of bills to reduce liability suits, including a bill to give landowners immunity from liability suits for injuries resulting from “open and obvious” hazards on their properties (SB13). That bill could be headed for a House-Senate conference committee after the Senate refused to accept a House amendment that says landowners could be held liable for hazardous conditions, if the danger also
constitutes a violation of state law or local ordinance.

— A number of bills to relax gun regulations, including a bill that would allow people with concealed weapons permits to have loaded firearms in vehicles parked at the state Capitol complex (HB2128). The vehicles would have to be locked and the firearms stored out of sight of passersby.

In past sessions, legislators have admitted they frequently inadvertently violate the current state law, which prohibits firearms anywhere on the Capitol grounds by having weapons in their vehicles parked at the Capitol. Meanwhile, one bill that isn’t on the fast track yet is the governor’s
bill to encourage growth of the state’s young craft beer brewing industry by lowering licensing fees and easing bureaucratic restrictions (SB273).

As a half-dozen lobbyists representing beer wholesalers looked on, the Senate Economic Development Committee delayed action on the bill for a week, citing concerns that major breweries and beer distributors could sue the state if the legislation gives favorable treatment to resident craft brewers.

However, Anoop Bhasin, general counsel for the state Alcohol Beverage Control Administration, said he thinks the governor’s bill would not be subject to lawsuits, since it sets a sliding scale of fees, based on the number of barrels of beer brewed annually.

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