UNDER THE DOME
by TOM MILLER
Based on past history, there will likely be more than 2,000 bills introduced at the 2011 regular 60-day session of the West Virginia Legislature which begins in Charleston this week. But history also suggests only about 10 percent will get serious consideration by lawmakers.
One obvious issue this year is redistricting of both the House of Delegates and state Senate as a result of the 2010 U. S. Census. And already there are some suggestions that the 100 members of the House should all be elected from 100 separate delegate districts. Even House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, has voiced support for this approach.
Currently there are 58 delegate districts but only 36 of them elect a single member while the other 64 House members come from multi-member districts of as few as two and as many as seven. So it seems unlikely such a drastic change will be considered.
One of the more interesting bills already suggested by newly-elected Delegate Gary Howell, R-Mineral, is the Intrastate Coal and Use Act. It would allow the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to issue mining permits for coal companies that only mine coal for in-state use.
Howell said this would not violate the powers now held by the federal Environmental Protection Agency because the coal companies that don't export coal to other states are not engaged in interstate commerce. Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association, who claims EPA has denied many mining permits for West Virginia companies that hurts this state's economy, likes the idea.
Delegate Rick Snuffer, R-Raleigh, another freshman legislator, wants more public disclosure of how the state's tax dollars are spent and plans to team up with returning Delegate Linda Sumner, R-Raleigh, to pursue this topic that failed at the 2010 session.
Snuffer believes it would do away with funding hidden from the public like a $2 million appropriation which he said Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, "sneaked in for a training track for dog races".
Another bill that failed to pass last year even though it breezed through the House of Delegates the first week is a proposal to tighten the state's ethics rules, particularly as it relates to financial disclosures by public officials of not only their financial holdings and income sources but also the same information on their spouse.
House Speaker Richard Thompson, D-Wayne, is pushing the bill again and the West Virginia Ethics Commission has also renewed its support for the increased public disclosure requirements. Senate leaders who ignored the proposal a year ago now say they will support the measure. But some of them still may have problems with the one-year waiting period before public officials can become lobbyists that is the second major component of the bill.
Unfortunately, a major issue of how to cope with billions of dollars needed for post-employment benefits for retiring public school teachers and other state government workers still seems to be unresolved despite the efforts of a joint House-Senate committee that has been working on this issue since early in the 2010 regular legislative session. . .
MEANWHILE, there will be a dramatic changing of the guard in the state Senate for this legislative session. Sen. Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, has secured enough votes to be elected Acting Senate President and has already announced his new leadership team. Some of the more dramatic changes are that Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, will replace Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, as majority leader and Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, will become chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, replacing Sen. Walt Helmick.
Sen. Richard Browning, D-Wyoming, will become the new Senate majority whip while Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, will become the new president pro tempore
Kessler will be relinquishing his former position as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee to preside over the Senate sessions and has selected Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, to become the new chairman. Palumbo is the second generation in his family to hold that position since his father, the late Sen. Mario Palumbo, also served as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, will continue to chair the Senate Education Committee and Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, will take Sen. Prezioso's former rule as chairman of the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee. Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, will be the new chair of the Senate Government Organization Committee, assuming a post that was vacated when Sen. Ed Bowman, D-Hancock, did not run for re-election last year.
FINALLY, it's only a matter of time until West Virginia's first woman governor is elected and the recent announcement by Betty Ireland that she plans to run for that office in the next election increases the odds that it will happen sooner rather than later. In Ireland's case, her chances are slim because as a Republican she must overcome a 2-1 Democrat voter registration edge in this state.
The closest a woman has come to being elected governor so far was Democrat nominee Charlotte Pritt in 1996 who lost by about 36,000 votes to Republican nominee Cecil H. Underwood who won his second term as governor 40 years after winning his first term. Look for current Secretary of State Natalie Tennant to take a shot at the governor's job--if not in 2012 certainly within the next few years--and as a Democrat, her prospects seem better than Ireland's chances.
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