CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As the 2016 regular session of the Legislature moved toward its final days, the next to the last week of the session was notable for the defeat of two major bills.
Senators killed the Religious Freedom Protection Act (HB 4012) on a 7-27 vote, a day after the Senate adopted an amendment by Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, that said the act could not be used to overrule any federal or state or local nondiscrimination laws or ordinances.
Proponents of the bill argued that the amendment nullified the intent of the act.
“The amendment totally gutted the bill and actually turned it into a bill that was hostile to religious freedom,” Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Upshur, contended.
However, senators may have been swayed by a moving floor speech by Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, who choked back tears in asking the Senate to support Palumbo’s amendment.
“I believe in the goodness of people,” Carmichael said. “I want the poor to be rich, and the weak to be strong, and when we build walls, we diminish that.”
It was a surprising end for a bill that had passed the House of Delegates by a 72-26 margin on Feb. 11.
Opponents argued that the bill was unnecessary, citing protections for practice of religious beliefs in the U.S. and state Constitutions, and warned of potential backlash against tourism and economic development if the bill became law.
Also defeated was the governor’s bill to increase state tobacco taxes, a measure intended to both help close state budget deficits and to promote public health by discouraging smoking and tobacco use (SB420).
The Senate had not only passed the bill on a bipartisan 26-6 vote, but had raised Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s proposed 45-cent a pack increase to $1 a pack, for a total of $1.55 a pack. That would have raised nearly $120 million a year in new taxes.
However, in House Finance Committee, delegates rolled the tax increase back to the governor’s 45-cent a pack level, and removed proposed increases on other forms on other forms of tobacco, as well as a new tax on e-cigarette liquids. That would have raised about $71 million a year.
That change resulted in an unlikely coalition of delegates who thought the 45-cent increase was too low to deter people from smoking to join with delegates who opposed any tax increase, leading to the bill’s defeat in committee on a 3-21 vote.
Afterward, House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, lamented the impasse in the House, leaving a gaping hole in the state’s 2016-17 budget.
It’s extremely scary and it’s unfortunate,” he said, adding, ““We’ve got a (budget) hole of at least $170 million with no revenue increases. It’s tough. It’s extremely tough.”
Also during the week at the Capitol:
— The House passed 86-13 and sent to the governor a bill prohibiting a second trimester abortion procedure that critics say amounts to dismemberment of the fetus (SB10).
The bill would ban dilation and evacuation abortions, a procedure that proponents of the bill called barbaric.
However, opponents said the bill interferes with the doctor-patient relationship, could endanger women’s health, and is another step toward banning abortion in the state.
“I really believe the ultimate goal of this legislation is to take away women’s health services, one by one, until no safe, legal options are available to any woman who makes a decision to end a pregnancy,” said Delegate David Pethel, D-Wetzel.
— Legislation to allow ride-sharing services like Uber in the state was sent to the governor after passing the Senate 34-0 (HB 4228). Tomblin is expected to sign the bill, meaning that the service would begin on July 1.
“This legislation provides an opportunity for people to benefit from self-employment opportunities, will provide an additional transportation option in many cities, and should cut down on drunken driving,” Tomblin spokesman Chris Stadelman said of the bill.
— A bill to allow to allow restaurants and resorts to serve mimosas, Bloody Marys and other alcoholic beverages during Sunday brunch (SB 298) remained alive in the House – but with a new requirement that voters in each county first approve the earlier serving hours.
Restaurant and resort operators say they lose millions of dollars a year under current law that prohibits serving alcoholic beverages before 1 p.m. on Sundays. Previous attempts to move that time up to 10 a.m. have been defeated in the House.
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.