CHARLESTON – It will take a few days for the dust to settle and sort out everything that happened during the just-completed 60-day regular session of the Legislature, but here are some initial observations.
* The great success of the session is the passage of a series of legal reforms. These often complicated and nuanced bills don’t grab the easy headlines, but they should go a long way in reducing the perception of the state as a “Judicial Hellhole.” Taken together, the reforms represent a “jobs bill” for the state. The Legislature passed a total of 12 legal reform bills.
* The modification of the state’s prevailing wage law is also an improvement. The changes mean workers on big state projects, such as building a new school, will be paid closer to market wages. Currently, the state uses a flawed system which, according to research here and in other states, drives up the cost to taxpayers for public projects.
* While some of the Legislature’s most conservative lawmakers pushed hard for a law eliminating the need for a permit to carry a concealed weapon, many more succumbed to the pressure from gun rights groups. The bill passed both chambers overwhelmingly. Privately, some lawmakers who voted for the bill now hope Governor Tomblin will veto it.
* The House of Delegates did an about face on what appeared to be a reasonable compromise on a bill that would permit forced pooling/lease integration for Marcellus Shale gas well drilling. Earlier, the House approved the bill 60-40, but when the bill came back from the Senate, it failed in the House on a 49-49 vote.
* Charter schools have become a viable option in 42 states and Washington, D.C., for parents and students fed up with failing schools, but West Virginia remains behind the curve. Lawmakers failed in the final hours to pass SB 14. In the end, the Legislature also decided not to repeal the controversial Common Core standards. That’s a relief to the state Board of Education, but now the Board and Superintendent Michael Martirano must do a better job of addressing parents’ and teachers’ concerns about the new standards.
* “Christmas tree” bills that include several apparently unrelated topics either pass because they have something for everyone or collapse under their own weight. This year, the bill that would have changed the state’s fireworks laws, permitted smoking in casinos and raised the cigarette tax by $1 over two years fell apart on the last day. The biggest loser here is Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort in Hancock County, which fears a loss of business when a new county-wide smoking ban takes effect July 1st.
* So, what about the roads? Neither the Governor nor lawmakers planned to do anything big this session to generate substantially more money to fix the roads. Yes, there are plans to study the Division of Highways to look for savings and a few extra million tucked in here and there for pothole patching, but I suspect when lawmakers return home they will get an earful from their constituents who are weaving around and bouncing through our pothole-filled roads.
Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.