CHARLESTON, W.Va. — With the 2016 regular session of the Legislature winding down to its final two weeks, legislators worked through the weekend – creating some consternation.
Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, an ordained minister who pastors three churches in Jefferson County in the eastern panhandle, objected to a planned Sunday session, saying he could not serve his congregations Sunday morning and early afternoon, and make it back to Charleston in time for the Senate session.
“They’re putting me in a situation where I have to chose between my congregations or my constituents. My religious freedoms are being violated,” said Unger, who was prepared to go to Kanawha Circuit Court seeking an injunction to prevent the Senate from meeting on Sunday. That court hearing was averted when Unger reached an agreement with Senate leaders that they would not take votes on any matters on Sunday.
Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, called Unger’s action gamesmanship.
“I am extremely disappointed by what is clearly a sad attempt at political gamesmanship and obstructionism. The West Virginia Constitution unambiguously calls for a 60-day legislative session. It makes no exceptions,” Cole said. “Today’s attention-seeking publicity stunt by Senator Unger is embarrassing, not only for him personally, but for this body as a whole. It shows how little respect Senator Unger truly has for the institution of the West Virginia Senate. When Senator Unger was in the majority party, he had absolutely no problem with working on Sundays.”
Unger blamed the leadership for poor time management resulting in the weekend sessions, saying the decision to limit most bills to review in only one committee was resulting in excessively time-consuming floor sessions. “The committee process is being done on the Senate floor,” he said.
Highlights of the week at the Capitol:
— The Senate passed 24-9 legislation that would legalize concealed carry of firearms without undergoing background checks or gun safety training and without requiring a state permit (HB 4145).
Two days later, the House and Senate reached a compromise on the final version of the bill, sending it to the governor. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed a similar bill last session, citing overwhelming opposition from law enforcement officers, and is expected to veto this bill.
However, this year, the bill passed early enough in the legislative session so that legislators will still be in session to override the governor’s veto, making the bill law over his objections.
The compromise approved is intended to encourage residents to take gun safety training by providing a tax credit of $50 to offset the costs of the course. The House version originally offered a $100 credit that could also be used to defray the $100 cost of obtaining a five-year concealed carry permit, but senators balked over potential costs to the state of $3 million or more a year.
— The House of Delegates passed 73-20 legislation to block implementation of Common Core educational standards (HB4014), after expanding the bill to also block yet-to-be adopted science education standards.
Several delegates spoke in favor in delaying adoption of the science standards, over concerns they might teach that burning fossil fuels contributes to global warming.
The bill goes to the Senate.
— The Senate passed a Tomblin administration bill to increase state tobacco taxes after raising the governor’s proposed cigarette tax increase of 45 cents a pack to $1 a pack, which would raise the tax to $1.55 a pack (SB420).
Advocates of the higher tax said it would not only raise an estimated $115.3 million to fund public employees’ health care premiums in the Public Employees Insurance Agency plan, and to close budget gaps, but would be more effective at deterring smoking.
“You have to hit somebody hard enough in the pocketbook that they say, “Now, I’ll quit,” said Sen. Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, a physician.
Likewise, Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said the higher tax would discourage young people from taking up smoking.
“If we can make an impact on our youth, I foresee that we can make a great impact on our state,” he said.
The bill passed the Senate on a 26-6 vote, putting pressure on the House, where a number of delegates have been outspoken against passing any tax increases.
— The Senate advanced on an 18-14 vote a resolution calling for a constitutional convention to amend the U.S. Constitution (SCR10).
As drafted, the resolution calls for the convention to consider amendments to limit powers of the federal government, require balanced federal budgets, and set term limits for members of Congress.
However, critics warned that the convention – which would be the first since the Constitution was drafted in 1787 – could open the entire Constitution and Bill of Rights to possible revision or repeal.
“It’s the atomic bomb in the Constitution,” warned Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison. “It opens up everything in the Constitution.”
However, Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said, “I do not fear the exercise of the authority expressly given to the people to control the federal government.”
If the House approves the resolution, West Virginia would be the sixth of 34 states needed to call a constitutional convention.
Phil Kabler is a contributing columnist to the West Virginia Press Association. He can be followed on Twitter at @PhilKabler.Reach