CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Thursday marked the midway point of the 60-day regular session of the Legislature, which in previous years, has been the point when
legislative activity has started gearing up.
This year’s pace has been noticeably faster. As of the 30th day, a total of 66 bills have already passed one house or the other, and nine bills have completed the legislative process and been sent to the governor, including three that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has signed into law.
The most contentious item of the week may have been the Senate’s passage of a bill originally intended to repeal the state’s Prevailing Wage Act (SB361).
After six days of closed-door negotiations with representatives of union construction workers and building contractors – who argued an outright repeal would open the floodgates to out-of-state contractors using migrant labor, while costing West Virginia workers their jobs – Senate leadership crafted an amendment that instead revamps the law.
As amended, responsibility for setting wage scales for workers on publicly funded construction projects would shift from the Division of Labor to Workforce West Virginia, which would rely on data from the Business and Economic Research institutes at Marshall and West Virginia University to set wages for the building trades. The bill also sets a threshold, so that projects costing $500,000 or less would not be subject to prevailing wage.
The bill passed the Senate 23-11, over objections from senators who said they have no way of knowing what wages will be under the new system.
Also Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, took Senate leadership to task for negotiating the compromise in secret, closed-door meetings, and providing the amendment to the full Senate just minutes before the Senate was to vote on the measure.
“I don’t know how we can vote on something we haven’t read,” Unger said of the eight-page amendment. “I don’t know how we can go back and tell our constituents we’ve been responsible.”
The bill goes to the House of Delegates.
In the House, a key issue of the week was passage of a bill banning late-term abortions (HB2568), a bill similar to legislation Tomblin vetoed in 2014 over constitutional concerns.
The bill prompted nearly two hours of debate prior to an 87-12 passage vote. Proponents argue that abortions should be banned after 20 weeks’ gestation, the point they believe fetuses are able to feel pain.
Opponents contend that the legislation intrudes on the doctor-patient relationships, infringes on women’s rights, and based on prior court decisions, is likely to be overturned as being unconstitutional.
House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, said the state would welcome the opportunity to defend the legislation in court. “If it costs us a few dollars, it’s worth it,” he said.
The bill now goes to the Senate.
Also at the Legislature:
— The House passed 88-12 and sent to the governor a bill transferring oversight of deer farming in the state from the Division of Natural Resources to the Department of Agriculture (SB237). Proponents contend that Agriculture is better suited to grow the industry, including expanding retail sales of venison and deer jerky. Deer hunters have long opposed the concept, concerned that deer raised in captivity could endanger deer in the wild through the spread of chronic wasting disease.
— Legislation to deregulate water and sewer systems operated by municipalities and by larger Public Service Districts (SB234) advanced from Senate Government Organization Committee, over objections from the state Public Service Commission officials, who say it will lead to higher utility rates.
“One of the fundamental arguments for the legislation is the premise that the Public Service Commission does not give adequate rates to utilities,” PSC general counsel Richard Hitt said.
However, supporters of the bill said getting rates and projects approved by the PSC is a “byzantine” process. Tim Stranko, counsel for the Morgantown Utility Board, also said local utility boards would not be “cavalier or careless” in setting rates for their neighbors.
— Friday the 13th proved unlucky for Delegate Chris Stansbury, R-Kanawha, whose truck was struck on Kanawha Boulevard in front of the Capitol as he attempted a U-turn into his legislative parking space, near the governor’s mansion. Stansbury said he was stopped, with his turn signal on, when he was struck from behind by a minivan. Neither driver was seriously injured although Stansbury said he had a bump on the head and a sore shoulder.
“I’m not superstitious, but it makes you wonder,” he said of the timing.