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Special session stuck on magistrate pay

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After defeating a measure aimed at speeding up the special session, the House of Delegates will spend additional time working through a magistrate pay raise bill while the Senate twiddles its thumbs.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin called for a special session Wednesday afternoon to focus on six bills, four of which failed during the regular legislative session that ended late last week.

One of the bills, a measure to create a special tax district near Morgantown and help West Virginia University build a multi-million dollar baseball park, is now on its way to the governor's desk after quick action by both houses.

"It's a good day for West Virginia," said Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia. "I think the folks back home and across the state were pretty vocal. They wanted this to happen."

The Senate unanimously agreed to suspend constitutional rules that require bills to be read three times on three separate days. They agreed to do so on four of the six bills on the agenda for the special session.

That allowed the body to speed through three pieces of legislation, including the Morgantown tax district measure, raises for some magistrate judges and shifting state money that included $7.5 million from the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Fund.

The Senate also passed a House bill to send $4 million from the state fire marshal to the volunteer firefighter worker's compensation fund.

The House of Delegates was able to suspend constitutional rules and pass the worker's comp bill on Wednesday, as well as the Senate bill creating a the Morgantown tax district.

The House could not get enough support to suspend constitutional rules on the magistrate pay raise bill, however, which means the special session could drag on until Friday.

"There are some people who feel very strongly against it. I think there is a view in our caucus that we should not be giving pay raises when we're cutting $75 million out of our budget already," said House Minority Leader Tim Armstead.

Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, had hoped the Legislature could end the special session on Wednesday night.

"They know how they're going to vote on the bill. What's the point of sitting here for three more days on the taxpayer's dollar?" Kessler said. "I hate to just see us lay here for two more days, at $100,000 a day, to keep us here."

The governor didn't officially call a special session until late Monday afternoon, leaving little time to actually read through the bills, Armstead argued.

"We've been here 60 days. These things could have been addressed during that time," Armstead added.

House leadership made it clear during the regular session they would not pass the tax district bill unless the Senate approved a pay raise for about one-third of magistrates.

The Senate did so, but with major amendments to the magistrate bill.

The Senate version increased pay only for six counties' magistrates who received pay cuts after the 2010 Census. Magistrate pay is based on county population.

The Senate version did not pass muster with the House and died on the last night of the regular session, dragging the special tax district bill down with it.

Legislative leadership met Tuesday and Wednesday with the governor's office to work out a compromise on the legislation before the special session began. They came up with a bill that, if passed, immediately would raise magistrates' pay in six counties. All other state magistrates would see pay raises by 2017, following a comprehensive study of state magistrate courts' workloads.

The bill passed the Senate 28-6.

"We held 'em off until we legitimized the system," said Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion. "I couldn't take the risk of a TIF bill not passing. I had to make some concessions on the magistrate bill. We had to compromise to get it through."

Prezioso was adamantly against the measure that passed the House, as were Armstead and his fellow Republicans. The bill would raise pay for magistrates in counties represented by several members of House leadership.

The vote to forgo constitutional rules and immediately approve the bill failed in the House. Such a vote requires 80 percent approval from delegates present; it was approved by about 66 percent.

House Republicans did vote to make such a move with the funding bill on tap for the special session. Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, Finance Committee Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, and other members of House leadership nixed that idea.

Armstead said it's uncommon for the minority party to suggest moving straight to final approval, but the bill is "pretty straight forward." It moves money in several funds, including $75. million from the Attorney General's Consumer Protection fund.

That money would fund behavioral health services for the Department of Health and Human Resources while sending $500,000 each to Marshall and WVU. The Attorney General's Office would also get $1.9 million, about $960,000 of which is devoted to new computers and phones.

"He has a very antiquated phone system and computer system that doesn't even allow him to have a tracking system for cases, which certainly needs to be done," Armstead said.

Funding for the Attorney General's Office kept the bill from passing during the regular session. White proposed an amendment that would have taken significantly more than the $7.5 million. On Wednesday he confirmed he had suggested the change, noting the fund carries about $20 million and could afford a trimming.

White said the House voted against final approval of the bill Wednesday in case someone wanted to change it today, the appropriate time to do so by standard procedure.

"We think we'll just let it run its full course and see what happens. Since they did not vote to suspend (rules) on the other bill, we're going to be here anyway", White said.

There are still two bills slated for special session untouched by either chamber. One concerns funding and oversight related to the tax district bill, while the other provides money for the extra legislative time.

Before convening the special session, both the House and Senate agreed to pass this year's budget. The bodies also approved minor changes to bills passed during the regular legislative session.

Both chambers reconvene today at 11 a.m.



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