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W.Va. legislative session had its pros and cons

April 17, 2001

W.Va. legislative session had its pros and cons



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg


A new judge and a new ability to assess impact fees on developers were the major items affecting the Eastern Panhandle that came out of the just-concluded regular session of the West Virginia Legislature, local lawmakers said Monday.

But lawmakers failed to make headway on getting "differential" pay for teachers and other state employees in the Panhandle who face a higher cost of living than their counterparts elsewhere in the state.

The session's pros and cons were assessed Monday by legislators, who pointed to a fifth magistrate as a major accomplishment for Berkeley County. The county has experienced a population increase of 28.1 percent from 1990 to 2000.

"We did that in a bipartisan fashion," said House Minority Leader Charles, Trump IV, R-Morgan.

Magistrates are the judges at the front door of the judicial system, where almost everyone goes who has a legal issue. A fourth Circuit Court judge was added by the Legislature last year to handle the increased legal caseload.

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"It is significant," said Del. Vicki Douglas, D-Berkeley, of the new magistrate.

Lawmakers also clarified the state Local Powers Act to give counties the ability to assess impact fees on developers.

The Jefferson County Commission is one step away from being able to assess the fees to help pay for such items as roads, sewers and schools needed because of development. The commission had to all but ensure buildings met state building codes before they could assess impact fees.

This change makes building code enforcement apply only to new structures. Old structures are grandfathered in under the law.

"I'm in the building industry," said Del. Larry Faircloth, R-Berkeley, a Realtor. "I think we have some obligation to work with local governments to provide what they need to handle growth."

"I feel like the Local Powers Act (changes) were the most important educational act we passed," said Del. Dale Manuel, D-Jefferson. "This is important for all infrastructure. But educational infrastructure is the most important."

Another bill would allow the state School Building Authority to stretch out payments to individual districts over three years instead of one, said state Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley.

"If Jefferson needs $20 million from the building authority for a new high school, the authority has only $28 million," he said. "So you'd give them $20 million and leave $8 million for the other 54 counties. This way, you could get $10 million one year and $5 million the second and third."

He and other Eastern Panhandle lawmakers said they were disappointed that legislation on a pay differential went nowhere during the regular 60-day session.

"It's difficult to get other legislators to recognize our problems and even harder to get them to act on them," Trump said. Douglas and others said a study is needed to provide justification for the bill. Unger and Douglas said they hope a study will be done this year.

Legislators differed on the fate a bill by Gov. Bob Wise to regulate, reduce and tax "gray machines" and pay for such items as teacher pay and PROMISE scholarships for high achieving high school students.

Gray machines are video slot machines that are legal if played for amusement but are illegal if a payout is made.

Wise had made the bill a centerpiece of his legislative agenda and the issue "sucked the oxygen out of the session" at the expense of other issues, Trump said.

Some legislators said it may give rise to moral problems to rely on gambling for state revenues and Trump said it is a shaky foundation on which to build a budget.

Countered Manuel; "Gray machines are the opportunity for the state of West Virginia to provide pay raises for teachers" and other employees.

"We need to get this dealt with one way or the other," Douglas said. "The ghost of the gray machines has been haunting us for too long."

The Legislature has been called into a special session to deal with the gray machines and a few other items. That session began Monday. Traditionally, governors will extend the regular session of the Legislature to work on the state budget.

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