Common Core repeal, smoking bill, fireworks die on Legislature’s final
Phil Kabler, Charleston Gazette
On the last day of the 2015 regular session, when several key bills crashed and burned, much of the fireworks in the final hours were over a bill that originally intended to legalize fireworks in the state but had been “Christmas treed” in the Senate to include multiple provisions, including exemptions from smoking bans at racetrack casinos and veterans’ organizations and a two-year phase in of a $1-per-pack increase in cigarette taxes.
Ultimately, the fireworks bill (HB2646) also went up in smoke, but not without several attempts to salvage it.
At one point, a report materialized in a House-Senate conference committee just 10 minutes after House conferees were appointed, and 10 minutes before the 8 p.m. deadline to file conference reports. It dropped the tobacco tax hike, but broadened the ability of casinos, Limited Video Lottery parlors, veterans and fraternal organizations to obtain exemptions to indoor smoking bans.
“It’s a bad bill. It sounds like a real mess. It takes us back to 1960,” Chuck Hamsher, with the Coalition for a Tobacco Free West Virginia, said of the proposal.
However, delegates quickly soured on the hastily drafted bill, after discovering it defined smoking as inhaling “tobacco smoke or smoke from any other plant” — which they feared could permit marijuana use at those locations.
The conference report was never taken up, nor was a proposal to attempt to further amend the Senate version of the bill.
Among the bills that died in the final hours was a House bill that originally would have required the state Department of Education to repeal and replace Common Core education standards by July 1 but was amended by the Senate into a proposal for a two-year study of the standards (HB2934). It died when the House refused to accept it as a study.
“Most of the members of the House are interested in repeal of Common Core,” House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said earlier Saturday.
In the Senate, Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, earlier received assurances from Senate Education Chairman Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, that the Senate was steadfast on a study, but not an immediate repeal of Common Core.
Time also ran out for a resolution that would have made West Virginia the 27th of the 34 states needed to call a constitutional convention for a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution (SCR13).
“It would be my opinion it’s not going to be completed today. It’s going to have to be taken up in another session,” House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, said Saturday afternoon of the resolution.
The resolution was parked in Judiciary Committee, which had a brief meeting Saturday morning to discuss the controversial measure but did not move it for consideration on the House floor.
Shott said House leadership had concerns that lengthy floor debate on the measure could take up much of the remaining hours of the session, at the expense of bills still pending action. Opponents of the resolution, including former West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Richard Neeley, warned that a constitutional convention on a balanced budget amendment would actually open the entire U.S. Constitution to revision or repeal.
“My understanding is it was debated for nearly two hours on the Senate side,” Shott said. Generally, the 34-member Senate acts with more brevity in floor debates than the 100-member House.
“It’s a shame we didn’t get it sooner,” he said of the resolution, which the Senate adopted Thursday and was reported to the House Friday evening.
Similarly, a bill to authorize pilot projects for state-funded charter schools (SB14) to be operated by nonprofit or private organizations ended the session parked on the House’s inactive calendar Saturday afternoon.
That, in part, was because of a House Education Committee amendment that changed a nondiscrimination clause for charter schools to allow those schools to refuse to admit students because of sexual orientation. An amendment to restore the nondiscrimination protections was one of 10 pending if the Rules Committee moved the bill back to the House’s active calendar.
Meanwhile, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Saturday he was pleased with the session, saying most of his agenda passed during the session, even with the first Republican-controlled Legislature in the state in 83 years.
However, Tomblin said it is a possibility he will veto a controversial measure to repeal a law making it a crime to conceal carry a firearm without a state permit (SB347).
“I obviously have concerns with it, as do the law enforcement officers of the state,” he said.
Also on the final day of the regular session:
• Legislation that could force landowners to sell or lease their mineral rights for Marcellus Shale horizontal-drilling projects, if a majority of surrounding landowners agreed to sell or lease their rights (HB2688), passed the Senate 20-14, but died when the House’s concurrence vote ended in a 49-49 tie, as both liberal Democrats and Tea Party Republicans decried it as an illegal taking of property. The bill originally passed the House on a narrow 60-40 vote March 4.
In the Senate, Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, was one of the opponents of the forced-pooling legislation, calling it a gift to the oil and gas industry.
“A gift on the backs of West Virginia property owners,” he said. “This is a taking. The state is getting involved in forcing people to give up their property.”
The House defeated the bill shortly before 11 p.m., despite Delegate Woody Ireland, R-Ritchie, calling for passage, calling it the “biggest job bill we’ve had in the last 60 days.”
• The House concurred, 63-33, on Senate amendments to a bill defining deliberate intent in Workers’ Compensation claims (HB2011), over objections from several delegates who opposed the compromise agreement. It includes setting a five-part test for establishing that an employer was aware of unsafe working conditions in violation of federal or state law or industry standards that resulted in a worker’s injury or death. The bill goes to the governor.
• The House voted 91-8 to approve a bill spelling out rights of state car dealerships in dealing with auto manufacturers, a bill delegates amended Friday evening to block electric car manufacturer Tesla from opening dealerships in the state (SB453).
“This is the bill that would allow us to announce very clearly to the world that we are provincial, that we are parochial, that we don’t want to support new technology,” chided Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, in opposing the legislation.
Likewise, Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, said the Legislature is shortsighted to oppose promotion of electric cars, which he said could increase demand for electricity from coal-fired power plants.
“I just can’t stomach kicking Tesla out of West Virginia,” he said. “I think that’s backwards.”
The Senate concurred, sending the bill to the governor.
• On a lighter note, the Senate passed and sent to the governor a bill allowing private businesses to make contributions to the Division of Highways to fill potholes or make other minor road repairs (HB2571).
Sen. Mike Hall, R-Putnam, said the bill allows contributors to specify which repairs they are funding, noting, “In other words, you designate which pothole you want fixed.”
However, Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, said he feared the bill could set a “you want it fixed, you pay for it” precedent for road repairs.
Plymale noted that the bill is a sad reflection on the poor condition of state roads.
“We’re not doing anything to address what is in the worst shape in my 23 years of being here in the Senate, of our transportation and roads system,” he said.
• Several bills completed the legislative process and were sent to the governor earlier Saturday.
That included a bill to scale back regulations for aboveground chemical storage tanks from legislation passed one year ago after a water contamination crisis that affected 300,000 West Virginians (SB423). The bill exempts more than 36,000 tanks of the nearly 50,000 tanks that were to be regulated under that law.
Also, a bill intended to expand the state’s young craft beer brewing industry by lowering licensing fees and expanding retail sales opportunities (SB273) was sent to the governor.
Staff writer Eric Eyre contributed to this article.