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At the Capitol: Legislators deal with special session and interims

WVPA Note: “At the Capitol’ is a legislative column provided as a member service to our newspapers for statewide publication.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Legislators found themselves juggling both a special session and regularly scheduled May interim meetings this month in Charleston.

On the plus side, in the special session, legislators appropriated a total of $69.9 million to a number of agencies and programs whose funding had been left in limbo after legislation passed in a one-day special session in March changed how they receive appropriations.

Approved funding includes up to $4.7 million to continue the state Courtesy Patrol roadside assistance program, $1.5 million for Tourism promotion advertising matching grants, as well as a total of $1.06 million to restore funding cuts to several family resources, children’s services, and domestic violence prevention programs.

Legislators also passed legislation clarifying that a regular session bill to increase the state minimum wage to $8 an hour in 2015 and $8.75 in 2016 does not make any changes in laws regarding maximum work hours or overtime pay.

City officials around the state were concerned the minimum wage bill would have inadvertently made firefighters who work 24-hour shifts eligible for overtime, at a cost of hundreds of thousands to those municipalities.

On the down side, the special session preempted many of the scheduled interim meetings —  both being conducted May 19-21 — with 16 of the 33 scheduled meetings ultimately getting cancelled.

Highlights of those meetings that actually went on included:

—  Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox warned legislators that all road construction projects around the state could come to a halt in August, if Congress allows the federal Highway Trust Fund to run out of money. Mattox said Congress is at an impasse over passing a new transportation funding bill before the Highway Trust Fund, which provides federal matching funds to the states, is exhausted.

President Barrack Obama has proposed a four-year, $302 billion transportation bill, but it has drawn Republican opposition. Mattox said that bill would increase federal highways funding to the state by about 20 percent a year.

He said the U.S. Senate has passed a six-year, $265 billion plan that would keep federal funding to the state at the current level of about $324 million a year.

Mattox told legislators he’s optimistic Congress will reach some compromise as the funding deadline approaches, as has occurred in the past.

“We’ve been down this road before,” he said. “It’s not the first time Congress faced a deadline on highway funding.”

— A legislative audit of the attorney general’s office under former Attorney General Darrell McGraw found that sloppy record-keeping and a lack of internal controls made it impossible to reconcile a variety of purchases and expenses.

The audit found that between July 1, 2011 and when McGraw left office in January 2013, there were more than $35,000 of Fuel Card purchases that could not be reconciled because of inadequate documentation, along with more than $45,000 in travel expenses that were not properly itemized or documented.

The audit also found the attorney general’s office had reimbursed tuition and educational expenses for three employees, at a total cost of more than $52,000, without reporting the tuition assistance as taxable fringe benefits on the employees’ W-2 wage forms.

— Legislators raised questions about Capitol complex parking spaces that will be lost as part of soon-to-be-bid contract to improve security on the campus.

The first phase of perimeter security project will convert the Culture Center parking lot into a bus turnaround. Currently, school and tour buses load and unload on high-traffic Greenbrier Street. The conversion will eliminate 51 parking spaces, which are assigned to legislative staff during sessions.

The project also calls for construction of a brick and wrought iron wall around the governor’s mansion, and extending the sidewalk in front of the mansion into what are now parallel parking spaces on Kanawha Boulevard in order to create an eight-foot wide buffer of plants and bushes between the wall and the sidewalk.

Architects said that will eliminate at least eight to 12 parking spaces – spaces that are assigned to members of the House of Delegates during legislative sessions.

Administration Secretary Ross Taylor told the Joint Committee on Government and Finance his department is looking at options to replace the lost spaces.

— Behind the scenes last week, anti-abortion activists were obtaining signatures for a petition to require the governor to call a special session on a bill he vetoed in March, banning abortions after 20 weeks gestation. If the needed signatures from at least 60 delegates and 22 senators are obtained, it apparently will mark the first time legislators have called themselves into session since 1955.

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