CHARLESTON — The battle between right-to-life forces and pro-choice proponents continues at the state legislature.
After an on-and-off, all-day session Friday, February 21, members of the house judiciary committee finally approved and sent to the floor a new version of the bill that proponents say protects unborn babies.
After the committee was called to order by Delegate Tim Manchin shortly after 8 a.m., the vote on House Bill 4588 finally came after 5 p.m. Judiciary considered several bills during the day, recessing each time the full house went into session and then resuming their deliberations between full house meetings.
The committee acted on several other controversial issues Friday before a packed meeting room on the top floor of the state capitol building.
One issue that sparked a public hearing and lengthy debate was a bill to establish electronic toll collection on some highways. While administration and leadership officials insisted the bill is not designed to implement tolls on State Route 35 in Mason and Putnam counties, representatives from those areas were skeptical. An amended version of the bill passed from the committee later in the day.
Another issue that stirred some interest was a bill that would create a student data accessibility, transparency and accountability act. Some lawmakers, including Delegate Woody Ireland, voiced concern that the data would fall into the wrong hands but officials assured him and others that there are safeguards against that happening.
A bill that would raise tipping fees for disposal of drill cuttings and associated drilling waste generated from well sites in commercial solid waste facilities drew the apparent opposition of Mingo County Delegate Justin Marcum. Although only a voice vote was taken, meaning individual votes were not recorded, Marcum clearly voted “no” when the issue came up.
Another bill that drew questions was one designed to allow former law enforcement officials to carry weapons if they are employed as security officers at schools. Officials assured lawmakers that the bill would only apply to former officers in good standing and approved by the local board of education and school principal. Eventually, the bill appeared to pass unanimously.
A bill that would eliminate the public notice of those applying for and obtaining concealed weapons permits was opposed by Kanawha County Delegate Danny Wells. Wells spoke against the bill, saying he felt the “public has a right to know who’s carrying.” Wells then appeared to be the only “no” when a voice vote was taken.
But it was the much-anticipated vote on the right-to-life bill that drew most of the audience’s interest. The bill would basically prohibit abortions after the fetus has reached 20 weeks except under very stringent regulations. Included in these regulations would be allowance for such abortions when a doctor determines, beyond reasonable doubt, that the mother’s life is jeopardized by carrying the fetus to its full delivery date.
Although several Southern West Virginia delegates had voted against discharging the bill from the health and human resources committee earlier in the session, nearly all have said they are pro-life. Those who voted against discharging the bill said they were voting “pro-leadership not pro-choice.” Still, a spokesman for Right to Life of West Virginia said that group will include the earlier “no” vote as a pro-choice vote when legislators are rated.
Delegates Marcum and Harry Keith White of Mingo County resorted to having the house public information officer issue a press release defending their vote and criticizing house Republicans for forcing the issue. Both Marcum and White claimed they are pro-life proponents and the move to discharge the bill was a “partisan political” stunt.
Others, such as Logan Delegate Ted Tomblin and Boone Delegate Josh Barker, also voted not to discharge the bill, citing support for the committee process. Later, both said they would vote for the bill in committee and on the house floor. Marcum and White gave the same assurances. Democrat Delegate Jeff Eldridge of Lincoln County was one of two Democrats to break party lines and vote pro-life on the discharge bill.
Of the Southern delegates, only Democrat Rupie Phillips of Logan who voted against discharging the bill, had not voiced a pro-life position by the end of the week.
Since both the health and human resources and judiciary committees voted by voice on the abortion issue, there is still only the roll call vote on discharging the bill that can be used to definitely report how each individual has voted. The full house will now consider the bill, where a roll call vote is likely.
Most observers believe leadership has prevented roll call votes in committee so as to not force delegates to choose a public side in the controversy. In fact, Ireland called for a roll call vote in judiciary but Chairman Manchin ruled he had asked for it too late.