Editorial: Legislature in home stretch
04/03/2013 - Charleston Gazette
CHARLESTON - Only 10 days remain in the 2013 regular legislative session, and it's time to start assessing results. Here goes:
Gun zealotry -- In the wake of the Connecticut massacre of first-graders, the House of Delegates plunged into a frenzy for guns, with 33 pro-gun bills introduced. The House overwhelmingly passed House Bill 2760 to revoke local gun safety laws in Charleston and other cities -- but the Senate blocked it after gun fanatics made a death threat against a senator. Meanwhile, still-pending HB2504 would jail federal officials who enforce U.S. gun laws, and HB2911 would hide the names of thousands of West Virginians with permits to carry hidden, loaded pistols. Was the House orgy a cynical ploy by most delegates to win votes from gun-lovers?
School reform -- Gov. Tomblin's attempt to raise West Virginia learning scores was watered down to suit teacher unions, but it still contains a few good steps such as longer school years and all-day pre-school classes for 4-year-olds. However, school reform crusader Charles McElwee points out that the Legislature has passed education changes every year for 24 years, yet student scores remain in the cellar. Will any improvement occur?
Prisons -- The conservative "lock 'em up" mentality caused West Virginia's inmate population to soar from 1,000 in the 1970s to more than 7,000 today. Rather than spend $250 million for another prison, the Senate passed SB371, in its very first roll-call vote, to put more nonviolent offenders into probation and rehabilitation. We hope the House concurs.
Cigarette tax -- Health researchers say that adding $1 to West Virginia's cigarette tax would save multitudes of teens from nicotine addiction, avoiding 11,800 early deaths and $17 million annual medical costs, bringing the state an extra $120 million revenue. Senators Brooks McCabe, Ron Stollings, Jeff Kessler and Roman Prezioso introduced such a bill March 21 -- but observers predict it will have little chance against Gov. Tomblin's no-new-taxes vow. That's a shame.
Human rights -- More than 30 states have expanded their hate crimes laws to cover "gay bashing" attacks, and 21 have passed human rights laws that protect gays from being fired from jobs or evicted from apartments, just because of their orientation. Many cities, including Charleston, have done likewise. In the Legislature, House Bill 2856 would have extended job and housing protection to gays. But rural fundamentalist prejudice caused it to be weakened so badly that the sponsor -- the only openly gay delegate -- withdrew the bill. Will West Virginia be the last place in America to take this step for fairness and decency? The bill should be brought back and put to a vote, making a public record of each legislator's stand.
Online sales -- For decades, West Virginia has struggled to collect the state's 6 percent sales tax on mail-order and Internet purchases shipped into the state. So far, officials are collecting about $5 million a year -- but University of Tennessee researchers estimate that West Virginia loses about $50 million a year. Gov. Tomblin backed a bill to beef up collections. We hope it passes, because local merchants are cheated by the current system that forces them to collect sales tax, but lets out-of-state sellers duck the obligation, giving them a 6 percent price advantage.
Medicaid expansion -- Under ObamaCare, state Medicaid could be expanded to cover about 120,000 "working poor" West Virginia families who earn less than 138 percent of the poverty level. Supporters say this would bring $500 million of federal funds to the state and create 6,000 jobs. It would be a humane step toward assuring that health care is a human right. The state Healthy Kids and Families Coalition is urging legislators to sign a mass letter urging Gov. Tomblin to accept the expansion. Go for it.
Blue law -- Old-time religious strictures, called "blue laws," rapidly are being wiped out around America. West Virginia still has one, forbidding retailers to sell liquor on the Sabbath and forbidding clubs and restaurants to sell drinks during Sunday church hours. The House Judiciary Committee approved a bill to wipe out this relic. We hope it passes.
Library rescue -- After the state Supreme Court relieved several county school boards of responsibility to aid county libraries -- throwing Kanawha County's library system into peril -- legislators drafted a plan to require all local school boards to divert 1 percent of their budgets for libraries. We hope it passes.
School lunches -- The state Senate passed SB663 to provide free lunches and breakfasts to every public school child in West Virginia -- not just to low-income ones. This seems healthy and reasonable. We hope the House concurs. Nearly all state leaders and educators say it would boost learning, because hungry children can't concentrate in school. Likewise, legislators should mandate more fitness efforts in schools, because obesity also hinders learning.
Medical pot -- "Compassionate" use of marijuana to ease pain of cancer victims and other sufferers would be allowed under HB2230. Why not? Pot is much safer than OxyContin and other painkillers that cause widespread addiction -- yet those pills are legal and pot possession remains a crime. West Virginia should join 18 states that allow medical marijuana.
After 10 more days, West Virginians will know the fate of these 2013 issues.