Gov. Joe Manchin, who suggested the change in the parole hearings at the start of the 2010 regular 60-day session last January, and House Speaker Richard Thompson, D-Wayne, who voted for SB218, both made it clear this past week they believe this was an oversight.
Everyone agrees there is a need for some prison inmates to be given more frequent parole hearings to reduce the prison population. But those serving time for violent crimes such as murder should not be included in that approach according to most lawmakers.
Thompson, responding to the concerns of a constituent in his district, wants the Legislature to move quickly to revise the new law at a special session later this year--even though the new law does not take effect until Jan. 1, 2011. Manchin, who may not even be governor then if he wins his bid for the United States Senate next month, thinks it can be handled at the regular 60-day 2011 legislative session that starts in January.
Manchin's recommended legislation was introduced Jan. 14 in both chambers the second day of the 2010 legislative session. Chairman Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee began moving the bill nearly a month later and it passed the Senate Feb. 15. The House of Delegates didn't pass it's version of SB218 until two days before the end of the 60-day session on March 11.
Differences in the bill's provisions between the House and Senate were finally ironed out and both sides passed the compromise version during the final hours of the regular session on March 13 and it was this final version that inadvertently removed the language that would have maintained the present three-year interval for parole hearings for violent crimes.
So now there is widespread agreement the provision needs to be put back into law and the only issue is how soon it needs to be accomplished.
Jim Pitrolo, a former legislator and now the governor's legislative director, seems to make the most compelling argument on behalf of the governor. He said efforts are underway to make sure the three-member state parole board doesn't conduct any parole hearings for these persons serving time for more serious crimes during January or February.
It's understandable that Thompson, running for another two-year term as a member of the House of Delegates in the November election, wants immediate action because he was one of the 82 members of the House who voted for the bill. But he's an incumbent running without Republican opposition so it's not likely to affect his certain re-election.
More importantly, as a potential candidate for governor in 2012, Thompson seems to want another special legislative session in the remaining months of 2010 to address the issue of who takes Manchin's job as governor if he's successful in his race for the U. S. Senate in the November general election.
MEANWHILE. a Kanawha County circuit judge's recent decision to duck the lawsuit about retiree pension and health insurance benefits in West Virginia for public school teachers and other school board employees was the obvious call. It's up to the Legislature, not the courts, to resolve this problem because it was the Legislature that passed a law years ago that allows these folks to convert unused sick leave into credits on their Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA) insurance premiums.
Legislators began wrestling with this difficult financial issue several months ago but still have no solution. The PEIA Finance Board wisely decided in July of 2009 to end the subsidies for public school retirees as well as retired state workers. But the unfunded liability continues to grow and is now estimated at more than $8 billion.
It's understandable that the 55 individual county boards of education would want to duck any responsibility for this mounting financial problem. These school boards are being forced to acknowledge the growing debt on their balance sheets, which has caused layoffs in some instances and will also likely affect the bond rating for future school bond issues at the county level.
So the ball is now back in the court of the special legislative study committee made up of members from both the House of Delegates and State Senate that has been working for nearly a year on this problem without much success so far.
Finally, table games have only been underway at the Charles Town casino/racetrack for less than three months but the impact on state revenue is already obvious, members of the state Lottery Commission learned last week. That one Eastern Panhandle location produced $9.75 million in total revenue--more than the state's other four licensed gambling casinos combined.
The state's profit was $3.4 million from that one location in August while the state's combined share from the other four casinos was less than $2.5 million. And lottery officials believe the future will be even more profitable because half of the 85 gaming tables authorized there are still idle because of a shortage of licensed dealers.