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Inmate, home rule bills pass as W.Va. session ends

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - West Virginia will target its inmate crowding crisis by expanding supervised release and community-based drug treatment, among other steps, after the Legislature passed another key proposal Saturday from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's agenda before concluding its 2013 session.

Before the midnight deadline, lawmakers also approved an attempt to improve student performance and attack child poverty with a bill to expand school breakfast and lunch programs to more students. The children of slain troopers would get more help attending college under a successful bill amended so it also offers the scholarship benefit to the families of all law enforcement killed in the line of duty. Other measures approved would extend maternity coverage to the dependent children of insurance policyholders and increase the take-home pay of most circuit judges by reducing their pension contributions.

A special House-Senate committee saved a proposal to extend an experiment that's handed more self-governance to a handful of municipalities. The final bill invites up to 16 more cities and towns to apply for this home rule pilot program. The four cities currently in the program could stay but one, Charleston, could not keep several of its current gun ordinances.

The compromise bill only allows participants to ban firearms from most municipal property except parking garages. Concealed weapon permit holders, meanwhile, could have guns on city-owned property that have no government operations, such as parks or swimming pools. The House had sought that language.

While urging passage, Senate Judiciary Chair Corey Palumbo bemoaned that and several other restrictions placed on what cities and towns could pursue.

"This is, 'We trust you, municipalities, but we don't trust you very much. We don't trust you very much at all,'" said the Kanawha County Democrat, who represents Charleston. "Home rule light is better than no home rule at all, but just barely."

The Senate prevailed in a dispute over Tomblin's effort to require blood tests for drivers suspected of being under the influence of drugs. As passed, that bill would not punish arrested drivers for refusing a blood test, although police will have extra time to seek a warrant for such a test.

Failed bills included dueling House and Senate proposals offering pay raises to county magistrates and top court staffers in four counties. Delegates sought to extend salary hikes well beyond the four counties that saw pay cuts because of declining populations.

Senators reconsidered and passed a bill making it a crime to leak grand jury information, after earlier voting it down. Mingo County Sheriff Eugene Crum requested that legislation before he was shot dead earlier this month, said Delegate Justin Marcum, a Democrat and assistant prosecutor from that county.

Crum complained that three drug suspects fled the state and a fourth had time to destroy evidence because a grand juror tipped them off, Marcum said Saturday. It was another Mingo County Democrat, Sen. Truman Chafin, who triggered the bill's initial defeat after arguing it was too intrusive.

The student poverty measure, the Feed to Achieve Act, requires all schools to try to maximize school meal participation in order to take greater advantage of federal money for meals. It recommends programs such as "grab and go" breakfasts and eating breakfast in class as ways to increase participation. It mandates that each county set up a fund to solicit private donations to expand and improve their school lunch programs. Senate Majority Leader John Unger, the bill's sponsor, said feeding young children in school is an economic development issue.

"What attracts companies the most? We can give all the tax breaks in the world, we can give them free land," the Berkeley County Democrat said. "But if you don't have a workforce that's not on drugs, that's not on disability, that can't come to a job, companies will not locate here in West Virgina."

The Legislature opted to continue public financing of Supreme Court campaigns following a 2012 pilot program. Concerns about public confidence in the courts prompted the pilot as an alternative to traditional campaign fundraising. The legislation increases available funds to $300,000 for a contested primary and $525,000 for a contested general election campaign.

The state will save $6 million next year as a result of Tomblin's proposal to eliminate state tax credits for alternative fuel vehicles like plug-in and electric cars. More tax dollars will be coming from Tomblin's proposal to collect sales tax from online retailers that have a physical presence in the state. That would apply to Amazon.com, which recently opened a customer service center in Huntington.

The governor had also wanted employers to have more time to pay fired or discharged workers, a concern raised by the state Chamber of Commerce. The Legislature complied, changing the deadline from 72 hours to four business days, or the next scheduled payday, whichever comes first. Other successful agenda items stiffen fines for pipeline safety fines, following a non-fatal fire sparked by a December line rupture, and aim to help the state Medicaid program recover costs. The latter responds to a Supreme Court ruling that greatly limited the program's share of a multimillion medical negligence settlement won on behalf of a Medicaid patient.

A Tomblin proposal to study how any given bill would create, maintain or cost jobs in the state failed earlier this week under the weight of committee amendments that broadened its focus to include such areas as child poverty, the environment, veterans and seniors.

Along with a wide-ranging education measure passed and signed before the final day, the inmate crowding bill was a major proposal of the governor's. It draws from a study of the state's crisis by the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project of the Justice Center at the nonpartisan Council of State Governments.

"We have two alternatives: building a new, probably $200 million prison and keep expanding the problem or trying the route we're taking and following the advice of Justice Reinvestment," Tomblin said following the bill's final passage.

The Legislature will spend next week completing a new state budget in extended session.

 


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