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Tom Miller’s Legislative Update: Time running out on legislators

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Legislators were running out of time here last week during the final days of the 2014 regular 60-day session that ended at midnight March 8 on the critical legislation that is intended to protect drinking water in the state as a result of the Jan. 9 chemical leak that contaminated Elk River near Charleston and fouled drinking water for 300,000 West Virginia residents.The House Judiciary Committee was still discussing SB373 a week ago Sunday for the third day and had considered only five of the total of 44 amendments proposed by members of that committee.  The state Senate gave final approval to the bill in late January.

With a deadline of  March 8 when the regular legislative session ended at midnight, this critical legislation managed to clear not only the House Judiciary Committee but also the House Finance Committee by last Wednesday, March 5 so that it could be read on three separate days before the full House of Delegates could vote on this legislation. The full House finally passed its amended version of the bill late on Wednesday night, March 5–leaving only three days for the House and Senate to agree on a final version before the Saturday midnight adjournment of the session.

A group of 27 delegates had written to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, requesting a special session to work on the bill but leaders in both the House and Senate were discouraging that idea.

Legislators can continue to work on the 2014-2015 state budget bill this week after the 60-day session adjourned.

There were still concerns during last week’s final days of the session about the fate of SB6, the legislation to reduce methamphetamine labs by requiring a doctor’s prescription for cold medications that can be turned into illegal meth.

Haley Barbour, a former Republican governor of Mississippi, has written a letter to West Virginia lawmakers in which he urges them to pass the legislation designed to reduce methamphetamine labs by requiring a doctor’s prescription for cold medications that can be converted to illegal meth.

Because of changes made by the House, the revised bill would also have to be re-approved by the Senate and might wind up in a joint House-Senate conference committee during the final

In other legislative developments last week:

— Members of the House of Delegates voted 52-44 mostly along party lines to pass HB4490 — the Attorney General’s Ethics and Accountability Act — that provides sets stricter ethics rules for Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrissey’s office. As might be expected, Democrats described the legislation as “good policy” while Republicans in the House predicted it would cause a “constitutional crisis”.  He said passage of a similar law by the Mississippi Legislature in 2010 resulted in a 98 percent decline in meth labs and saved “countless lives.”

The bill, which now is in the Senate Judiciary Committee, was described by Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, as a move to “preserve the integrity of the attorney general’s office”  But Republicans said the bill was a “witch hunt” and also a “personal attack” against Morrisey.”In every way, it’s simply outrageous,” said Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer.The bill requires Morrissey to step aside in any lawsuit filed by his office against any company or individual who has paid him or any immediate member of his family within the past five years.

— the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a controversial bill (SB365) to the Senate floor last Monday without a recommendation. The legislation originated in the Senate Government Organization Committee in January and would exclude county conservation district supervisors from the state ethics law that prohibits public officials from having a private interest in public contracts.

The bill was recommitted to the Judiciary Committee after its first reading on the floor Monday, providing the committee with another day to work on a possible compromise.  Wednesday was the 50th day of the current legislative session which is the final day for the Senate to take action on Senate bills at this 60-day session that ends at midnight March 8.

— the Senate Government Organization Committee amended HB4454 last week to make certain the “last call” at bars and clubs with Alcohol Beverage Control Administration licenses to serve alcoholic beverages will remain at 3 a. m.

This legislation was amended on the floor of the House of Delegates by Delegate John Overington, R-Berkeley, to move the cutoff time for service alcoholic beverages from 3 a. m. to 2 a. m.  Critics claimed Overington’s amendment could cost the state as much as $9 million a year in lost revenue from Limited Video Lottery machines.

By law, the hours for these machines in more than 1,600 bars and clubs around the state correspond with the hours that liquor may be served.  Last Tuesday, the Senate committee amended the House bill to return the cutoff time back to 3 a.m. on a unanimous voice vote.

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