CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Although tap water was available at the West Virginia Press Association's annual legislative breakfast Thursday at the Marriott, hardly anyone was drinking it.
But lawmakers had plenty to say about the ongoing water contamination crisis, now in its fourth week.
"I don't know that I've seen a crisis of confidence as I've seen with this water crisis," said Delegate Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha and Minority Leader of the House of Delegates.
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Editorial: Sampling of home tap water is a good plan
Part of that lack of trust, he said, is because people don't trust the water running out of their faucets is safe. But that could change now that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has directed a team to evaluate home testing options. That announcement came after a terse news conference featuring the governor and officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency.
However, House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said Tomblin missed an opportunity by not announcing home testing options sooner.
Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, acknowledged consumers' lack of confidence in his remarks. He said he has attended town hall meetings about the crisis and heard firsthand about the public distrust in the water.
"The people filling those rooms want to know if the water in our homes is safe," Kessler said.
Kessler said he'd like to see a random sampling of three or four homes in each of the 24 zones mapped out by West Virginia American Water to get a clearer picture of how widespread the contamination remains.
"I think that would go a long way toward reducing public anxiety and mistrust," he said.
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Kessler and Miley clashed last week after Senate Bill 373 passed the Senate and was introduced in the House.
Senators worked quickly to pass the bill, which regulates aboveground storage tanks similar to the one that failed at Freedom Industries and leaked 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM into the Elk River. However Miley directed a triple committee reference, which usually is a kiss of death for legislation.
Kessler and Miley have since resolved the issue, and Miley explained his reasoning for the triple reference. The bill must go before the House Health Committee, the House Judiciary Committee and the House Finance Committee before it will be brought to the full House for a vote. Miley said the water crisis represents health, judicial and financial issues, so he wants to be sure all three committees get a crack at it.
"We intend to take a good look at it," Miley said.
Amendments to the bill are also likely, Miley said, as the House could incorporate Chemical Safety Board recommendations in the legislation.
"I can't tell you why we have not incorporated those recommendations," Miley said. "They've been around for a number of years."
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Thursday marked the halfway point in the 2014 regular legislative session, and Kessler said he's pleased with the way it has progressed so far despite the water crisis drawing much of the Legislature's attention.
"Obviously the high profile thing over the first couple of weeks has been the water issue," he said. "The Senate and the House both have a good handle on that now. We've passed our bill out. It's over in the House. The House has passed its bill -- the small business loans -- and I'm hoping to get that out very, very shortly, maybe as soon as next week. Then I think we can start looking at some of the other issues out there hanging."
Those issues include bills to make pseudoephedrine available by prescription only, which is moving through the Senate. Despite the situation with the water and quick action to pass bills addressing the issue, Kessler said not much has changed with the legislative process.
"The first few weeks of the session, I sort of liken it to coffee you put on to percolate," he said. "You put coffee on the stove, that was before you made it instantly with these new machines, and you wait for the coffee to boil. The first couple or three weeks, you get bills introduced, through the committee. The process is meant to be a more deliberative process, so early on things don't happen immediately."
Things will start moving quickly over the next four weeks as session winds down. The deadline for bills to be introduced is Feb. 17. Bills are due out of committee Feb. 23 to ensure they can be read three times on House or Senate floor and come up for vote. Feb. 26 is what is known as "crossover day." That's when bills are due out of the house of origin and cross over to the other chamber.
"I think you'll see more bills passing in both chambers by virtue of the fact the committees are well into their work," Kessler said. "You'll start seeing bills move and I think there will be real work starting on the budget bills, the governor's supplemental budget bills."
The Legislature adjourns March 8.
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The Senate Banking and Insurance Committee passed out a concurrent resolution urging Congress to revise a flood insurance law.
House Concurrent Resolution 42 addresses the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, which committee counsel said causes inequities in the amount of flood insurance premiums paid by West Virginians with homes in flood plains versus owners of million-dollar beachfront homes.
"Basically what this resolution states is that since the flood insurance program, the national one, is in debt due to (Hurricane) Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, the financing has been redone," she said. "A lot of multimillion dollar beach homes are subsidized by West Virginians who have primary homes in flood plans."
An amendment proposed by counsel cleaned up some technical language. Both the amendment and the resolution were adopted. The measure will now go to the full Senate for its adoption or rejection.
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The state Senate unanimously approved a bill making it an offense to steal timber from state forests.
The bill grants the Division of Forestry the authority to investigate and enforce timber violations. Individuals who steal timber valued under $25,000 would be guilty of a misdemeanor and could face up to a year of jail time and/or a fine of up to $500. Thefts valued at more than $25,000 would be considered a felony and perpetrators could face up to three years in jail and/or a fine of up to $10,000.
In addition to these criminal penalties, anyone convicted of timber theft would pay a $500 civil penalty to the Division of Forestry.
Senate Bill 353 has been passed to the House for action.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.