Session a busy one for W.Va. lawmakers

CHARLESTON – From education to prison overcrowding to home rule, local lawmakers in the 81st West Virginia Legislature said much was accomplished during the 2013 regular session.

The Legislature concluded the session midnight Saturday, going over a number of bills and voting on several pieces of legislation.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin praised the leadership of both Houses as well as the lawmakers themselves.

“For the past 60 days, (Senate) President (Jeff) Kessler, Speaker (Rick) Thompson and members of the legislature have worked with my administration to put West Virginia families first,” he said. “I appreciate their dedication to not only my legislative agenda, but to all of the legislation passed, which makes improvements to West Virginia.

“Together, we’ve made our education system stronger, our roads safer and our communities better. I’m very pleased with the progress we’ve made.”

The governor’s education reform bill was a key piece of legislation that got passed this session. The bill outlines a comprehensive plan to raise student achievement and improve the state’s education system.

Sen. David Nohe, R-Wood, said many residents will see the impact of the education bill in how teachers are hired and insuring schools get the full 180 days of instruction.

“This bill changes a lot,” Nohe said.

Del. Anna Border, R-Wood, said the education bill was a good first step in addressing the state’s education needs.

Nohe talked with the governor Saturday night and Tomblin got around 28 of 32 bills he wanted through the legislature.

“He felt good about that,” Nohe said.

Another important bill passed toward the end of the session dealt with prison overcrowding.

The bill strengthens the supervision and accountability of those inmates on probation and parole in order to reduce the number of repeat offenders in the prison system and, in turn, reduce crime in communities throughout our state, the governor’s office reported. The bill is also expected to save the state an estimated $140 million over the next five years, committing $25.5 million of these savings for community-based substance abuse treatment programs for persons released on probation or parole.

Nohe said the approval of this bill came after almost two months of testimony by various officials. The bill matches West Virginia’s corrections system with that of Texas, which is view by many to be one of the strictest in the country, he said. The point of the bill was to cut down on prison overcrowding while working to maintain the safety and security of the community.

“This will be almost like an experiment to see if it helps with overcrowding,” Nohe said.

Sen. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, said the prison bill will save counties money.

“Keeping a lot of these people in jail was breaking a lot of counties,” Boley said of non-violent offenders.

The bill focuses on closer supervision and counseling for the first six months after their release.

“The point is to keep them from going back to prison,” Boley said.

Border felt a lot in the bill was a good first step in addressing the problems, but she voted against it.

Her problem came with how the defendants were originally charged and what kind of plea agreements might be in place at the time of their sentencing.

Someone who committed a violent act might be able to plea to a lesser offense and technically be labeled as a non-violent offender.

“These people could end up getting released early,” Border said.

Other sentencing allows for early release at the completion of a certain amount of their sentence. Border took issue with the fact that no one really knows how the prisoner will behave at the end of their sentence.

“How do we know that their behavior will have improved,” she asked.

At the 11th hour Saturday, the Home Rule bill was passed.

The bill increased the number of cities to 20 across the state that could participate, including the original four, Charleston, Huntington, Wheeling and Bridgeport. The pilot program has allowed four of West Virginia’s largest cities to cut red tape, reduce blight and improve their finances through more local control, officials said. Both Parkersburg and Vienna are looking in participating in the program.

The bill passed with a provisions that cities had to give up local gun control ordinances that reached further than what was already in state law or run the risk of not being able to participate. The city of Charleston had such measures in place.

Boley said she was part of the conference committee that worked on the Home Rule Bill between the Senate and the House.

“We passed it back and forth about 3-4 times to get the language worked out,” she said.

Border, who voted for the bill, did not like that only 20 cities could participate and felt there was something to that which might be unconstitutional.

“(Home Rule) is still a good idea,” she said.

Nohe said bills addressing puppy mills and allowing the Parkersburg South Patriot to carry his musket at games passed. Boley said a lot of bills passed regarding procedural rules and clarification of past legislation also passed. Border was glad a bill passed that requires departments to issue deputies bulletproof vests.

Boley said the Senate went through around 100 bills Friday and Saturday. For the session overall, around 215 bills were passed which is about normal, she said.

Nohe said he felt there was a real bi-partisan effort to work together on a number of things in the Senate throughout the session.

The governor recently issued a proclamation extending the 2013 Legislative Session for six additional days, until April 19, allowing further consideration of the budget bill. The Legislature will only consider the budget bill during this extension.