Bills try to make their way through the pack as legislative sess - Business, Government Legal News from throughout WV

Bills try to make their way through the pack as legislative session nears end

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CHARLESTON —Watching legislation move through the process in West Virginia could be compared to watching a NASCAR race.

You pick a driver to follow, and you know the car has to make the required number of laps around the track to finish, but with crashes, rules and pit stops, it's not always clear what place the car is in or if it will make it to the checkered flag at all.

With only days remaining in the regular 60-day session of the legislative session, those people who have picked a potential bill to watch might be losing track of its progress.

Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam, said this is his 18th session, and from his experience, only a few big issues rise to the top of a session and stay there until the end. Hall said this year, those issues seem to be mine safety, drug abuse and Other-Post Employment Benefits, which are all on their way to becoming law.

Measures must be out of all committees by March 8 to be considered on the floors of the House of Delegates and the Senate before the session adjourns at the end of the day on March 10.

But as the saying goes, no bill is ever truly dead as long as there is life in the session. The ideas and language from many bills long considered dead have been known to wander into other bills being debated in the final moments, but several bills right now are on life support.

Brains for Business

The Charleston Regional Chamber of Commerce has spent years advocating an initiative that would entice more young West Virginians to stay in the state after receiving a degree. The format this year was House Bill 4475, which would provide modest tax credits to any state resident for two years after receiving an associate, bachelor's or advanced degree from an accredited institution in certain areas of study, such as science, technology, math, education or nursing.

The bill had a tough road to travel this year, getting stuck in a few committees in the House of Delegates before being passed last week. Members of Generation West Virginia and the Charleston Chamber have urged members and friends to flood members of the Senate with requests for the bill to be pushed through the Senate Economic Development Committee and then the Senate Finance Committee, where the bill was still waiting for a vote March 7.

Autism Insurance Coverage

During last year's legislative session, advocates for insurance coverage of autism spectrum disorder thought they gained a major victory with passage of a bill to provide coverage for children with the disorder.

The bill had a gap that went unnoticed, however. It capped coverage at $30,000 for infants through 12-year-olds, and a cap of $24,000 for 12-to-18-year-olds. Coverage for Applied Behavior Analysis therapy was unclear as well.

A bill this year, aimed at filling in those coverage holes passed the House of Delegates, but it stalled in the Senate. The bill was on second reading in front of the full Senate March 6, but members agreed for it to lie over a day. Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said the bill should be up for a vote March 8 after cost concerns are cleared. The Public Employees Insurance Agency estimated this week that the bill would cost $3 million each year, but the bill currently includes savings measures if coverage for autism increases annual insurance plan costs by 1 percent or more.

Teacher Evaluations

Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, said last week if he had to guess which issue may get diverted to a special session later in the year his bet would be education.

A bill that would establish a new system for teacher evaluation and mentoring came close to passage, but lawmakers from the House and the Senate were unable to come to a compromise.

Senators passed House Bill 4236 this week after adopting an amendment that put much of Senate Bill 372 into the measure.

Members of the House did not accept the changes, and the Senate wouldn't remove them, so a conference committee was appointed for a few members from both chambers to try to come to a compromise.

Many officials have asked lawmakers to wait on the results of an intensive audit of the state's education system, which was completed early this year. No substantive education measures have moved through the session this year, which could set the stage for a special session to intensively focus on the issues all at once.

Civil Unions

House Bill 4569, sponsored by Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, would have legalized civil unions in West Virginia. However, that bill was never reported out of the House Judiciary committee. The bill would not have legalized same-sex marriage, but rather certified that same-sex or opposite sex couples were recognized as having a legal relationship. The bill went on to say that nothing "interferes with or regulates the religious practice of any religious body. Any religious body, Indian nation or tribe or native group is free to choose whether or not to solemnize or officiate a civil union."

According to Fairness West Virginia, Doyle's bill was the first introduced to the Legislature to legalize civil unions among same-sex couples.

Doyle had said earlier in the session that he thought the state might be ready to deal with the issue this year, and since he's not running for office again, he wanted to try to push it through the process.

Tattoos and Tanning

Two bills the House Judiciary Committee was still debating as of March 7 could affect young people in the Mountain State.

Senate Bills 54 and 73 deal with tattoos and tanning, respectively, and would require parental permission before teens engage in either act.

Teens younger than 16 would be prohibited from getting tattoos at all, and teens between the ages of 16 and 18 would be required to have consent given "in the presence of the tattoo artist or responsible person at the studio … at the time the tattooing is to commence." The parent or guardian also would be required to show photo identification.

Tattoo artists who tattoo minors would be guilty of a misdemeanor and risk confiscation of equipment and material, along with a $100 fine.

A small provision in a bill related to the regulation of tanning facilities has gotten a lot of attention among teenagers. Section 16-44-3 of Senate Bill 73 would prohibit people younger than 18 from using tanning devices, including tanning beds. That section of code would require a person to show proof of age by way of a driver's license or other government identification that shows the date of birth and photo of the individual.

The bill does not, however, outline any penalties for businesses who allow teens to use their tanning beds. The introduced version would have allowed minors younger than 18 to use the beds with parental consent. That section was amended out in a committee, however, and prohibits teens from using tanning beds entirely.

The bill outlines potential penalties for tanning salons and similar businesses who would fail to obtain business registration certificates, does not register with the local board of health or fails to request inspections. Fines would range from $500 for a first offense to $5,000 for a third offense.

VFD Fireworks Funds

A bill that never quite got off the ground could have potentially helped fire departments fight fire with fireworks.

House Bill 3027 was introduced Jan. 11, but never made it out of the House Government Organization Committee. The measure would have allowed the sale of previously prohibited fireworks with the addition of a 10 percent sales tax on the purchase price of all fireworks.

The State Treasury would have been required to set up a Volunteer Fire Department Fireworks Fund, with the funds to be dispersed each year to each volunteer fire company or department on an equal share basis.

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