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At the Capitol Feb. 23-27

By Staff | Mar 9, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -There were procedural maneuvers and flaring tempers aplenty, as the 2015 regular session of the Legislature began counting down this week to its March 14 conclusion.

Much of the maneuvering and agitation was over a bill to allow charter schools in the state – schools operated by nonprofit or public organizations, with autonomy over policy matters, including personnel, finance, scheduling, curriculum and instruction (SB14).

Charter schools has been a key issue for the new Republican leadership in the Legislature, but is opposed by the state’s two teacher unions, who believe charter schools will drain resources away from public schools in counties where they operate.

When Senate Finance Committee took up the bill, Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, noted the absence of three Republican senators, and moved to postpone indefinitely consideration of the bill, a motion that passed 8-6, thanks to the temporary Democratic majority on the panel.

While “postpone indefinitely” normally kills a bill, Senate leadership had other plans, taking the possibly unprecedented step of a motion to discharge the bill from the committee and bring it directly to the Senate floor, a motion that passed on a party line 18-16 vote, much to the chagrin of Senate Democrats.

“They just decided they were going to resurrect it, like Lazarus,” a visibly angry Kessler said after the maneuver. “That’s not what our rules provide for.”

In retaliation, Democrats showed their displeasure by invoking a little-used rule to require that some bills be read in their entirety by the assistant clerk as a delaying tactic.

Going into the weekend, the charter schools bill was pending in the Senate.

Also at the Legislature:

– Legislation to ban late-term abortions (HB2568) passed the Senate on a 29-5 vote, and was sent to the governor, after the Senate rejected several amendments proponents said would assure the bill could withstand legal challenges.

Last year, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed a nearly identical bill, citing concerns from legal counsel that it was unconstitutional.Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, offered an amendment to the current bill to push the ban on late-term abortions back, to after 24 weeks gestation, which he said would comply with U.S. Supreme Court rulings preventing states from prohibiting abortion prior to viability. However, Sen. Chris Walters, R-Putnam, said that when medical or legal evidence is in dispute, the Legislature has an obligation to resolve the issue.

“It’s up to us to look at the medical evidence, and say, “Yes, there’s evidence that these children feel pain,” he said, referring to thebill’s premise that abortions should be banned at the point when

fetuses can sense pain.

The bill passed with 17 days remaining in the session – allowing time for the Legislature to override a likely gubernatorial veto of the bill.

– Industry backed legislation to roll back a number of long-standing coal mine safety regulations was poised to go to the governor after passing the House on a 73-25 vote, following two hours of debate (SB357).

Proponents of the bill said relaxing regulations will make allow West Virginia coal to be mined at competitive prices, and said the rules predate advances in technology and safety systems.

Opponents argued there had been no evidence presented that relaxing safety regulations would open mines or create jobs.

“It’s the first time that we’ve ever voted to go backwards in coal mine health and safety,” said Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion. “I truly believe that the passage of this bill is going to hurt people and going to cost human life.”

– West Virginia could become the sixth state to allow the concealed carry of handguns without a permit, after legislation passed the Senate 32-2 (SB347).

Currently, residents must be at least age 21, undergo a background check, and complete a gun safety course to obtain a permit, and the Senate rejected amendments offered by Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, to retain the minimum age and the safety training requirements.

Romano said his amendments were “common sense,” but the Senate rejected the age limit as being arbitrary, and rejected mandatory safety training as being, in the words of Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Upshur, “a backdoor licensing scheme.”

The bill goes to the House.

– Consideration of a bill to invalidate city ordinances that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity (HB2881) was postponed indefinitely in the House, after causing an uproar among critics who said the bill was promoting intolerance.