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AUDIT SECRECY BILL CLINGS TO LIFE: CONTROVERSY ERUPTS AS


Publication: THE CHARLESTON GAZETTE
Published: Saturday, April 12, 1997
Page: P1A
Byline: Phil Kabler

Lawmakers advanced one secrecy bill while another clung to life Friday, as the 1997 regular session of the Legislature reaches its final day today.

In the House of Delegates, a bill that includes provisions to exempt the state Development Office and local development agencies from the Freedom of Information Act passed on a voice vote that caught opponents of the bill off-guard.

The bill, one of two third-reading bills that had been held over to the Friday evening floor session, was acted on in a motion before opponents knew what bill was under consideration.

"It was slick, and it was wrong," said Health and Human Resources Chairwoman Mary Pearl Compton, D-Monroe. "To circumvent the process with this kind of maneuver is the wrong way to go." Delegate Mike Buchanan, D-Monongalia, attempted to recall the bill, but the motion was defeated on a 77-20 roll-call vote.

"The whole thing just smells funny to me," he said.

The exemption, sought by the Underwood administration, would allow the offices to keep communications with businesses confidential, until an agreement to provide public funds to the business is reached or the deal otherwise is made public.

The Senate failed to act on a similar bill this session, but is expected to pass the bill today.

The other secrecy bill stayed alive Friday when the House and Senate extended a deadline for conferees on a bill to allow companies to conduct confidential environmental self-audits, giving them one more day to try to break a deadlock on the controversial legislation.

Conferees did not meet formally Friday, and Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, said the Senate conferees are standing firm on the Senate's take-it-or-leave-it position.

Delegate Jon Amores, D-Kanawha, lead sponsor of the bill, said the House decided to pursue negotiations as long as there's even minimal hope for an agreement.

"We wouldn't extend a conference committee if we thought we had exhausted our efforts," he said Friday evening.

"We just haven't received official word yet from the Senate on our offer of compromise. It may be what we all thought was inevitable last night." On Thursday, conferees broke up after Snyder said the House would either have to accept the Senate version - which allows attorneys to review the self-audits but not use them as evidence in trials - or make substantial concessions in order to get the more limited discovery under seal sought by House conferees.

Earlier Friday, DuPont lobbyist Craig Skaggs declared the bill dead, but Amores commented, "Craig's taking the pessimistic approach." Also Friday, the Senate Rules Committee took a bill that would permit experienced motorcyclists over 21 to ride without helmets off the agenda Friday evening. The bill would have been on passage stage.

Senate Minority Leader Jack Buckalew, R-Kanawha, made the motion to take the bill off the agenda, and said he believed efforts by the West Virginia Safety Council had convinced the leadership not to pursue the bill.

"They sent a list with all kinds of associations that are against it," he said.

The State Police also sent letters opposing the bill. Citing data from the National Center for Statistics and Analysis, State Police said the helmet law saved eight lives and $8.3 million in costs in West Virginia in 1995.

Buckalew said he isn't certain if there are enough votes to pass the bill, and said senators may be having a change of heart on the bill.

"I think it's a safety issue, and most of them feel it is a safety issue," said Buckalew, a retired State Police superintendent who said he had a friend killed years ago in a motorcycle accident. The friend would have survived if he had been wearing a helmet, he said.

Delegate Greg Butcher, D-Logan, the lead sponsor of the bill, was furious, but said he planned to try again today to get the bill on the agenda.

In other activity Friday, the Legislature: - Amended provisions of a Underwood administration bill to raise the threshold for Health Care Cost Review Authority review of purchases of new equipment or expansion of health care facilities from $750,000 to $1 million into another bill.

That allowed the House to let the original bill die. Sen. Leonard Anderson, D-Summers, had amended that bill last week to include a ban on late-term abortions in hospitals and clinics in the state. Under that amendment, any facility where such so-called partial birth abortions were performed would forfeit its HCCRA certificates of need, effectively shutting it down.

- Passed in the House and returned to the Senate a bill to merge the state Board of Investments and the state Trust Fund into the West Virginia Management Investment Board. The 13-member panel would supervise state investment and pension funds, and would replace a quasi-private investment agency ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.

- Passed in the House and sent to the governor a bill to lower the coal severance tax for low coal seams. The current 5 percent per ton would be reduced to 2 percent in seams of 47 inches or less, and 1 percent for seams no higher than 37 inches.

- Amended in the House and returned to the Senate a bill to change state law on trust funds for child support payments. Current law gives family law masters the discretion to set up trust funds when monthly child support payments exceed $2,000.

Senate Majority Leader Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, wanted to make that trust fund mandatory at $1,500. The version advanced Friday restores the law master's discretion, and does not specify a threshold amount.

- Passed in the Senate and returned to the House a bill that would authorize the sale of the road bonds approved by voters last fall.

Sen. Jon Hunter, D-Monongalia, said it didn't make sense to sell road bonds when the state is already pulling down all the federal matching funds it can.

"We're going to pay $200 million in bonds for $100 million in roads." - Passed in the Senate 31-2 and returned to the House a bill that would make it easier for landowners to have property designated as managed timberland, which carries a lower tax classification. Sen. Don Macnaughtan, D-Wetzel, objected to the bill, saying the Senate had no estimates of how much tax revenue could be lost.

- Passed 33-0 in the Senate and returned to the House a bill to update state marriage laws. Under both bills, the state would not legally recognize same-sex marriages. The Senate added provisions to require HIV testing as part of required blood tests for a marriage license, and also would make family law masters elected officials.

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