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Senate gets first crack at tackling reform

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Legislators have agreed the state Senate will get first crack at education and prison reform as the House tackles the budget and other financial issues.

A Kanawha County member of the Senate thinks that is the best hope for education reform.

"The Senate will clearly send a stronger bill to the House than the House would send to the Senate," Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha and vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said Thursday.

In an earlier interview Wells had bemoaned the leadership of the House Education Committee. He said the composition of the committee doesn't matter, because Chairwoman Mary Poling, D-Barbour, is still in charge.

The actions of the Senate Education Committee, unlike Poling's committee, traditionally haven't been dictated by the whims of teachers unions, in Wells' opinion.

"The Senate has been the leader on education reform in West Virginia. It should start here; we should take a lead role," Wells said.

"The Senate clearly has been the body that has been more willing to take a hard look at reforms that are needed. Regardless of what the pressure may be from . . . the AFT or WVEA, we have done that," he said.

However, lawmakers won't be able to work on some of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's highly anticipated bills on such major issues until next week.

House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, said Thursday he and Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, met Tuesday with heads of various committees to divvy up the governor's measures between the two chambers.  

This session is the House's turn to start on the budget, so it will focus primarily on the governor's bills that might be affected by that budget, Thompson said.

The Senate, meanwhile, will work on education and prison reform.

Kessler spokeswoman Lynette Maselli said late Thursday the governor's education reform package was on track to appear in the Senate Monday.

Thompson and Kessler both said deciding the starting location of each bill is simply about dividing the workload.

"The pundits are probably reading a lot more into where bills start than goes into it," Kessler said Thursday after the floor session.

The starting location of a measure can play a role in whether it's even discussed. Approval by both houses is required to send any bill to the governor's desk, but either chamber can choose whether that bill ever comes up for consideration.

The governor's bills are typically introduced in both the House and Senate, prefaced with the phrase "at the request of the executive." Only one chamber is working to pass any of those bills at any given time, Thompson said.  

"Whoever has that bill determines its life or its consistence or where it goes. If we choose not to run a bill, that's the end of it. If they choose not to run a bill, that's the end of it," he said.

Tomblin spent almost half of his State of the State address emphasizing the need for education reform. While he called on the state Board of Education to execute some of his recommendations, many of his proposals require legislative action.

Senate Education Chairman Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, said Thursday he expected all reform ideas to come in the form of one large bill.

Plymale downplayed the idea that the Senate would consider the education package first because the House Education Committee might stifle change.

"You've got to look at it: this is a completely new committee from what we've had before," Plymale said. "We've got four or five new members, they've got new members. I don't know that there's any stumbling block."

Thompson said splitting the bills saves time and makes it easier for the governor's staff to track any changes, problems or suggestions. However, committees could start working on the bills even if it's not technically that chamber's duty to address them first, he added.

The majority of Tomblin's 24 bills have been introduced, but those that remain are some of the most highly anticipated.

In addition to the education package, the governor's measures addressing prison overcrowding, purchasing reform and amendments to the Wage Payment Collection Act have not been introduced, Tomblin spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin said late Thursday.

A bill relating to the final wage payment for discharged employees is slated for introduction in the House and Senate today at the governor's request.

Tomblin pledged to introduce all of his bills within 10 days of his State of the State address, a traditional deadline for governors. However, Thompson said he remembers years when it has taken two weeks for the bills to come to either floor. Sometimes it just takes a while to work out all the details, he said.

This is the first time in his memory the legislative leadership has divided the bills before the 10-day deadline. The division should speed up discussion once the bills are introduced.

"It's generally nice to get them in so we can have plenty of time to work on the legislation, since the one house basically waits on the other for half of it," Thompson said. "The earlier, the better."

The House will also take up the governor's bills on enforcing drugged driving offenses and increasing the dollar amount for fines the Public Service Commission can levy for pipeline safety violations.

The Senate is scheduled to consider Tomblin's bills related to a tax credit for vehicles using alternative fuels and funding for public-private partnerships on transportation projects.

Writer Zack Harold contributed to this report.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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