March 10, 2012
Key issues push legislative session's last day to wee hours
Chris Dorst
Delegate Phillip Diserio, D-Brooke, votes for passage of a bill Saturday in the West Virginia House during the final day of the Legislature's regular session.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As the 2012 regular session of the Legislature wound down to a midnight adjournment, some key issues remained unresolved Saturday, including bills to crack down on illegal meth-making and prescription drug abuse, and to ban texting on cellphones while driving.

Another key bill -- intended to alleviate overcrowding in state prisons and regional jails through alternative sentencing, community corrections, and accelerated parole (SB437) -- appeared doomed, after the House Rules Committee moved it off the active House calendar Saturday afternoon.

"It's unfortunate, in the sense that we've got a major problem with too many prisoners and too few facilities," said Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha, lead sponsor of the bill. "This bill was not perfect by any estimation, but it did some things many of us, including the Division of Corrections, thought were very helpful."

Days earlier, the House Finance Committee had effectively gutted the measure, removing all provisions from the original bill, except to establish prison-based substance abuse programs, and enact provisions intended to reduce the likelihood of recidivism for recent parolees.

Foster said he believes legislators must continue work on corrections reform, possibly as a topic for a special session later this year -- before a court order or incident at one of the correctional facilities forces their hand.

Going into the evening, the bill to make texting while driving a primary traffic offense (SB211) was in a House-Senate conference committee to attempt to resolve the key difference between the bills: The House version makes any use of a hand-held cellphone while driving, including texting, a primary offense, while the Senate version treats talking on a cellphone as a secondary offense.

Police officers can enforce secondary offenses only after they've stopped drivers for other traffic violations.

Meanwhile, legislators were working on a compromise Saturday evening on the key point of dispute in the substance abuse legislation (SB437): Setting a limit on the amount of cold and allergy remedy pseudoephedrine -- a key ingredient in the illegal manufacture of methamphetamine -- that individuals are permitted to buy.

The Senate went along with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's recommendation of a limit of 7.5 grams per month, while the House reduced the cap by setting an annual limit of 24 grams in purchases.

Each tablet typically has 30 milligrams of pseudoephedrine in it.

House Majority Leader Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, said the House hoped to have a compromise amendment to offer when it convened its evening floor session at 7:30.

"They've been working hard behind the scenes on the substance abuse bill, and I think they've got an agreement," he said Saturday afternoon.

Several bills passed and advanced to the governor Saturday, including a bill that, by clarifying the benefits provided under the 2011 law mandating insurance coverage for autism, will effectively expand treatment options for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (HB4260).

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