CHARLESTON – A statewide legal reform group praised the West Virginia Legislature for the work done in the session that ended March 12.
“We applaud the members of the West Virginia Legislature for their abilities to tackle big issues, particularly lawsuit reforms, which will move our state forward and into the national mainstream,” said Roman Stauffer, executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. “This session they continued to focus on much-needed lawsuit reforms that will make our state more attractive to job creators and improve our economy.”
Stauffer first noted the passage of House Bill 4007, which codifies current Attorney General Patrick’s Morrisey’s policy regarding outside counsel.
“Our Legislature, working in tandem with Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, put into law a good-government outside counsel rule requiring transparency and competitive bidding for the hiring of private attorneys to represent the state and its agencies,” Stauffer said. “This legislation establishes strong ethical guidelines for attorneys general, and the competitive bidding requirement will help ensure taxpayers’ dollars are spent efficiently.”
The group for trial lawyers, however, disagrees with that assessment of the session.
“CALA and its out-of-state corporate backers are the only ones pleased with the 2016 legislative session," said Paige Flanigan, president of the West Virginia Association for Justice. "Instead of tackling the real challenges West Virginia has right now, including bad roads, a huge budget deficit and pending financial crisis, the legislative leadership wasted time on bills to appease their benefactors.
“West Virginia is facing serious problems. If we need to improve our state’s economy and bring jobs, we need to focus on building our infrastructure and making sure that state residents have the education and skills needed for a 21st century workforce. In November, West Virginians need to remember that when it mattered most, out-of-state special interests were more important to these legislators than we were. It’s time for a change.”
The Legislature passed 276 bills this session that were sent to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin for his signature.
Another bill praised by WV CALA was Senate Bill 7, which focused on wrongful conduct in criminal cases.
“The Legislature passed a commonsense reform to ensure that individuals accused of criminal and wrongful acts cannot file lawsuits if they were injured as a result of their own criminal activity,” Stauffer said. “This reform was needed to correct a ruling by activist judges on our Supreme Court of Appeals, led by Justice Brent Benjamin, who refused to acknowledge the wrongful conduct rule.”
Senate Bill 9 would have created an intermediate appellate court, but it didn’t see any action this session.
“We were hopeful that lawmakers would consider legislation to establish an intermediate court of appeals, but recognize the budget situation may have prevented consideration of that much-needed appellate court,” Stauffer said. “West Virginia continues to be an outlier in how we handle our appeals process.”
Another bill – Senate Bill 267 – would have changed how medical monitoring claims and awards are handled. It passed the Senate, but wasn’t taken up in the House Judiciary Committee.
“We’re hopeful that legislators will bring transparency and accountability to medical monitoring lawsuit awards next session,” Stauffer said.
House Speaker Tim Armstead said he thinks the session was a success.
“We accomplished a great deal this session to address these problems, and I firmly believe our citizens will begin to see the fruits of our labors in the coming months,” Armstead (R-Kanawha) said, singling out Senate Bill 1 that established the West Virginia Workforce Freedom Act, also referred to as right to work. Lawmakers passed SB1 in early February, and overrode a gubernatorial veto later that month to get the bill, which goes into effect July 1, enacted into law.
“I think this is one of the most significant economic reform measures to pass in my nearly two decades in the House,” Armstead said. “West Virginia becoming the 26th right to work state has drawn national attention and sent a clear signal that our state is open for business. This law will spur economic growth and help create the much-needed new jobs that will pave a path to prosperity for our state and its citizens.”
Armstead also noted House Bill 4005, which repeals the state’s prevailing wage laws.
“For years we’ve seen a great deal of evidence that these government-mandated prevailing wage rates artificially inflate wages on public projects,” Armstead said. “We must remember: every dollar spent by government is a dollar taken from our hard-working taxpayers, and we as lawmakers must work to ensure their money is spent wisely.
“We have taken this step to make sure workers on publicly-funded projects are paid fair, market-based wages, and at the same time free up resources to complete additional state projects – meaning more schools and more water and sewer projects – which will lead to more jobs overall,” Armstead said.
Senate President – and Republican gubernatorial candidate – Bill Cole called the session “most challenging.”
“West Virginia faces one of its toughest periods with our state in a severe fiscal crisis and a workforce participation rate that’s below 50 percent,” Cole said. “It took a lot of bold decisions to put our state on the track of prosperity and growth. I’m eager to see that benefits of those decisions in the coming years.
“We pushed hard during the regular session, and worked countless hours to get the legislation passed that we did. We’ll buckle down and work to get our state’s budget finalized in extended session next week. I know through cooperation and bipartisan effort, we will come to an agreement and produce a solid budget that protects taxpayers and meets our obligations.”
Morrisey himself praised the passage of Senate Bill 272, which will allow investigators for the attorney general and the state’s Alcohol Beverage Control Administration to carry concealed weapons in their official capacity. It passed both Houses and is awaiting Tomblin's signature.
“Our investigators play a critical role in rooting out fraud, great work that saves state taxpayers millions of dollars," Morrisey said.