Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has kept a watchful eye on the legislative session as it progressed.
Today marks the final day of the 60-day session, and Tomblin said he’s overall pleased with the session, though most of it was dominated by the unforeseen chemical spill and resulting water crisis.
“It started out on (January 8) when I gave my State of the State and I thought I had a pretty good plan not knowing what would happen on January 9 with the chemical spill,” Tomblin said. “With the chemical spill and water issue, it has pretty much dominated the past two months–the whole legislative session. There was a lot of time spent on hearings about what happened, what could have been done better and so forth. I think overall there have been some major pieces of legislation passed.”
Still to pass, though, are three bills that have caused much debate in the Legislature–House Bill 4588, Senate Bill 6 and Senate Bill 373. Both the House and Senate have amended each bill and passage may come down to the wire. The Legislature has until midnight to act on legislation.
Senate Bill 373 is a direct result of the water crisis caused by the chemical leak discovered Jan. 9. Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, introduced the bill that would regulate aboveground storage tanks similar to the one at Freedom Industries that leaked MCHM into the Elk River. The bill was introduced January 16 and has been amended extensively by each chamber since then.
“The bill that really dominated the Legislature has been the regulation of chemical tanks,” Tomblin said. “It’s been through five committees here and a lot of time spent on it. I think from all that I know about it, it’s a good bill and will help us achieve what we are wanting to do, which is do an inventory of all the tanks, have them registered and do periodic inspections on the tanks. That is one that needed to be done and fortunately should be passed later this evening.”
While some bills considered by the Legislature are new ideas, such as SB 373, some pieces of legislation come up year after year. That’s the case with Senate Bill 6, which seeks to require people obtain a prescription in order to purchase products that contain pseudoephedrine, an ingredient commonly used to make methamphetamine. An attempt to pass a similar bill in 2011 died in the Senate after a rare 17-17 vote.
The bill is in danger of not passing again, as the Senate refused to concur with House amendments that removed the prescription-only provision. That bill is headed to a conference committee made up of members of both chambers, but the committee members have yet to be announced.
“As far as the meth bill, that one has been around,” Tomblin said. “There’s a lot of controversy there and I’d have to see a final version.”
The House proposed an amendment that would allow individual counties to put prescription-only laws on the ballots. Tomblin said he thinks enforcing 55 different laws would be hard to do.
“The whole purpose for having a prescription-only bill for pseudoephedrine products is to limit or stamp out the meth labs,” Tomblin said. “Having 55 counties–from right here at the capitol in probably 15 minutes and be in four different counties. It would be very difficult to police if every county had a different rule on whether or not you have to have a prescription.”
House Bill 4588, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, seeks to ban abortions after 20 weeks following fertilization except in the cases of non-viable pregnancies. Doctors found guilty of performing abortions after that 20-week cut off would be charged with a misdemeanor and fined up to $4,000.
Although the bill passed both houses overwhelmingly, Tomblin said he is worried about the bill.
“The abortion bill obviously is one that causes me some concern because even the legislative attorneys and others said they feel this bill is unconstitutional,” Tomblin said. “I’ll be looking at all aspects of it once I receive the bill.”
A bill that proposed raising the minimum wage is also sitting in legislative pergatory. The House rejected a Senate change that would increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.75 over three years. The House’s version of the bill also included a $1.50 raise, but phased it in over two years.
Tomblin said he thinks the three-year phase in is a better idea. The longer period of time would allow small businesses more of an opportunity to cope with higher costs associated with paying their minimum wage employees more, Tomblin said.
Neither chamber has officially announced members of the conference committee on this bill either.
Tomblin has 15 days from receiving a bill that has passed the full Legislature to either sign the bill into law or veto it.
The legislative sessions ends tonight in a few hours, midnight Sunday.