CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Legislators marked the halfway point of the 60-day regular session with an impassioned debate in the House of Delegates over a bill dubbed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (HB4012).
Proponents contend the bill affirms that government cannot force individuals to act against their religious beliefs, while opponents say it gives legal grounds to discriminate against minorities, and is motivated by court decisions legalizing same-sex marriage.
During a lengthy floor delegate Thursday, Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, said the LGBT community in the state is already at risk of discrimination, citing an incident last week in Gilmer County, when a deputy county clerk told a same-sex couple obtaining a marriage license that they were an “abomination.”
Supporters of the bill say it merely guarantees the free exercise of religion.
“That freedom has been severely curtailed in recent years with the growth of gay rights and mandated contraception coverage under Obamacare, among other things,” said Delegate John O’Neil, R-Raleigh.
The bill passed the House on a 72-26 vote, and goes to the Senate, where Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, earlier in the week said he was undecided about advancing it, citing strong opposition from several business groups in the state.
A number of businesses and several municipal chambers of commerce have raised objections to the legislation, fearing it will lead to boycotts and lost business, noting that a similar law in Indiana cost the city of Indianapolis more than $60 million in lost convention and tourism business.
That was not the only heated debate on the House floor during the week.
On Tuesday, the House advanced a bill to allow adults to conceal carry handguns without obtaining a state permit (HB4145) on a 68-31 vote.
The vote followed about two hours of debate, with opponents citing opinion polls showing a large majority of West Virginians support the current law, which requires a background check and completion of a gun safety course to obtain a conceal carry permit.
“Many people, including NRA members, law enforcement officers, and the general public I was elected to represent, have told me this bill goes too far,” said Delegate Dave Pethtel, D-Wetzel.
Proponents, however, say the current law effectively requires gun owners to buy back their 2nd Amendment rights with the $100 fee for the five-year permit.
“This state isn’t going to tell me anything I can or cannot do with my personal property, and my self-defense of my family and friends,” commented Delegate Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock.
Some delegates proposed limiting the unlicensed conceal carry rights to in-state residents only, saying that otherwise, it would take away a tool from police officers, who currently can arrest and detain out-of-state drug dealers for carrying concealed weapons illegally.
However, that amendment was rejected after supporters of the bill said it would be a “poison pill” to overturn the legislation in court on constitutional grounds. The bill also goes to the Senate.
Also at the Capitol:
— Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed bills to make West Virginia a right-to-work state (SB1) and to repeal the state’s 81-year-old Prevailing Wage Act (HB4005). However, a day later, the Legislature overturned both vetoes on mostly party line votes, meaning both bills will become law.
In his veto messages, Tomblin said neither bill does anything to create jobs or bolster the economy.
In vetoing the right-to-work bill, which allows workers in union shops to opt out of paying union dues, Tomblin said he had never had a company cite the lack of a right-to-work law as a reason for not locating in the state.
“Since becoming governor in 2010, West Virginia has welcomed more than $10 billion in new investments and expansion projects,” Tomblin stated. “I do not believe West Virginia needs a right-to-work law, a law that would lead to little if any economy growth and may lower the wages of West Virginia workers.”
Likewise, he said the Legislature had been too hasty in repealing the state’s prevailing wage law, without giving time to see if changes made in 2015 in how the wage rates are calculated are effective.
“We don’t need to pass bills that lower the wages of West Virginia workers and do little, if anything, to stimulate our economy,” Tomblin said in the veto message.
With the session passing the halfway point, Tomblin expressed his frustration with the lack of progress by the Legislature to address major budget deficits totaling $820 million in the current and upcoming 2016-17 budget years.
That includes a lack of action on bills he has proposed to increase the state tobacco tax, and to eliminate a state exemption on sales taxes on telecommunications services – primarily for cell phones and landline phones.
“I’m a little frustrated none of these bills are being talked about right now, halfway through the session,” Tomblin said.
Phil Kabler is a Statehouse reporter/columnist for The Charleston Gazette and a contributing columnist to the West Virginia Press Association. He can be followed on Twitter at @PhilKabler.