Committee discusses prison problems; Senate passes Home Rule bill
March 8, 2013 ·
As the Senate Judiciary Committee wrapped up its discussion of Gov. Tomblin’s prison overcrowding bill, discussion in the committee switched focus to other issues within the judicial system, including a shortage of funding for the regional jails.
On the floor, the Senate suspended Constitutional rules to move two bills from second to third reading, which eventually moved on to passage and will be taken up by the House.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has spent more than a week focused on Senate Bill 371, the governor’s proposal to deal with prison overcrowding. Committee Chair Senator Corey Palumbo of Kanawha County said no major amendments were made through the committee’s discussion.
“I think the governor’s bill is the primary focus. I think long-term we probably need to look at all the sentencing laws to make sure they’re in line with what all the other states are doing,” Palumbo said, “but as of right now there’s no other bill out there that does that.”
A committee substitute for the bill was passed this week that included a six month early release period for non-violent felony offenders and adds six months of community supervision, something Palumbo said they are not receiving now.
He said the bill includes ways to decrease the growth of the prison population in the future by adding substance abuse treatment and other programs, but does nothing to add beds now for the more than 1,800 inmates that should be in long-term prisons. Those inmates, instead, are being housed in regional jails.
A new bill proposed to the committee helps take on another problem the regional jails are facing, a more than five million dollar drop in funding in the past ten years. Senate Bill 146 would collect unpaid magistrate fees from income tax refunds to make up for the shortfall.
Executive Director of the Regional Jail Authority Joe DeLong had suggested this solution to a joint interim committee last month to help makeup for the funding loss.
A suspension of the rules in the Senate sparked the discussion of another bill that received plenty of attention during interims. The Home Rule Pilot Project became one of the first to see amendments and debate on the Senate floor.
Senate Bill 435 was on second reading.
The Pilot Project is up for continuation as it reaches the end of its initial five year trial period. Four cities currently participate in the program, Charleston, Huntington, Wheeling and Bridgeport and Senate Bill 435 would extend it to include ten more cities.
Senator Evan Jenkins of Cabell County made a motion on the floor to automatically include those original cities in the continuation.
“My amendment says the four entities that are already in the Home Rule don’t start from scratch. They are considered already in the program. If they’re making any changes, they still have to file any approval for any changes,” Jenkins said, “but the additional amendment working with the chair of Gov. Org. adds an additional four.”
“So, we’re still creating ten slots of new opportunity, but just allowing the four that are already in the plan to remain and continue in the plan.”
Senator Herb Snyder of Jefferson County then proposed that if those four cities were to be included, the bill should be amended to allow ten additional cities, bringing the total to 14 participants.
Both amendments passed unanimously and Majority Leader Senator John Unger moved to suspend Constitutional rules, allowing the bill to be read for a third time today.
Senator Clark Barnes of Randolph County then asked Snyder to explain the bill further.
“I understand, a few minutes ago, that some of the rules have changed from our original program to this now. If you can do that briefly, can you give me a general idea of what those changes are?” Barnes questioned.
“An important part of this, the ordinances that they adopted prior to today will be in full force,” Snyder replied.
“So, the one percent municipal sales tax that Huntington did, all the business license, compressing them into less in Wheeling, Huntington’s design build ordinance, all those things are now codified. So, it doesn’t change anything they’ve done with one exception. That is the occupational tax that is subject to a law suit.”
Along with the restriction of tax powers, Senate Bill 435 says cities are also prohibited from using Home Rule for annexation, something Snyder says there are sufficient provisions for already in state code. The continuation also no longer requires cities to submit full ordinance proposals with their application to the program.
Snyder said the passage of the Senate’s bill was an innovative step for municipalities across the state.
He said this bill will now be taken up by the House, but its Government Organization Committee is also considering its own version of the legislation.