December at the Capitol

Editor’s Note: This is the monthly legislative column provided by the WVPA to its member newspapers.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A legislative interim committee has endorsed a multi-year pay increase package for Division of Corrections staffers, after Commissioner Jim Rubenstein said an “alarming” increase in employee turnover has resulted in office staff having to fill in for correctional officers in state prisons.
The action came during December legislative interim meetings at the Capitol earlier this month. 

Rubenstein noted all Corrections employees receive six weeks of basic training at the state Corrections Academy, and stressed that non-uniform employees are not assigned to high-risk positions in the prisons. However, he noted, “When your shortages and vacancies reach the point where you’re requiring non-uniform personnel…it’s not a good situation.”
 
Rubenstein said low pay is the key factor driving turnover, noting that a correctional officer in the state prison system starts at $22,584, and is assured of only one raise, coming after one year of service. However, with as little as three years’ experience, those officers can go to work in federal prisons, with a starting salary of $39,012, he said. Members of the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jails and Corrections endorsed a proposed pay raise package for Division of Corrections, Regional Jails, and Juvenile Services employees that would increase starting salaries by $2,000, and provide for regular promotions and pay raises for staffers. 

Rubenstein said he has submitted the pay raise proposal to the governor’s office, but had no indication whether Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin intends to include the $30 million pay raise package as part of his
2015 agenda.
 

December interim meetings marked a time of transition, as the current Democratic House and Senate leaders and committee chairpersons moved out of their offices, allowing new Republican leadership to move in prior to the start of the 2015 legislative session on January 15. 
 
Also during December interim meetings:
—  Sen. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, said she will again push for legislation to delay implementation of educational standards in public schools based on federal Common Core requirements. Two previous attempts were defeated in 2013 and this year, but Boley said the legislation could get a more favorable outcome in the new Republican-controlled Legislature. Boley’s comments followed a two-hour public hearing on Common Core in House chambers, where critics denounced it as an attempted federal takeover of state public education.  Proponents note that Common Core duplicates about 75 of state educational standards.
 
— State Rail Authority Director Cindy Butler said full-scale studies to determine the feasibility of passenger rail service between Charleston and Huntington, and between Fairmont, Morgantown and Pittsburgh, would cost about $400,000. In February, the House of Delegates passed a resolution calling for a study of the feasibility of expanding commuter rail service in the state, and Butler told the Select Committee on Infrastructure that the new State Rail Plan calls for feasibility studies for passenger rail service between Charleston and Huntington, and between Fairmont, Morgantown and Pittsburgh 

— For the third time in 14 years, legislative auditors have recommended terminating the state Board of Massage Therapy, concluding the professional licensing board receives few complaints, duplicates national certification options, and is not  needed to protect the public, since the potential risk of harm is relatively low. However, board executive director Linda Lyter told members of two legislative interim committees that she believes it is important to have state regulation of a profession where clients are in one-on-one settings with therapists, frequently in a state of undress. She cited a 2013 state Supreme Court decision upholding the board’s suspension of a therapist’s license for alleged sexual misconduct with a client. Lyter noted that criminal charges against the individual are still pending, and said that without the board’s intervention, it is likely that person would still be practicing massage therapy.
 
— Draft legislation took on a whole new meaning when the Joint Committee on Economic Development reviewed proposed legislation intended to encourage growth of brewpubs and craft beer brewers in the state. Based on recommendations to the committee from representatives of the state’s craft beer brewing industry, the bill proposes several steps to encourage expansion of the industry, including lowering licensing fees. Brian Arnett, owner of Mountain State Brewing and president of the West Virginia Craft Brewers’ Guild, said current annual licensing fees of $2,500 discourage “nano-breweries,” which brew small batches equivalent to no more than six kegs of beer at a time.
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