West Virginia lawmakers end special session

AP News
Posted: Nov 20, 2009 4:09 PM

West Virginia's Legislature ended its special session Friday with tweaks to the gas tax and state energy policy among the final bills to pass.

Party-line debates and votes marked the House's approval of both those measures. The Senate ended its work with unanimous passage of the energy-related bill, and of a funding measure that earmarks $27 million for the state's secondary roads.

Lawmakers approved all but one of Gov. Joe Manchin's 11 proposals during the four-day session. The House and Senate also endorsed one resolution honoring U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., as history's longest-serving member of Congress, and another defending the state's coal industry.

The coal measure reflects anxiety over increased federal scrutiny of mining practices, and the Capitol Hill debate over climate change legislation. The House's minority Republicans invoked such concerns in opposing Manchin's energy policy proposal, which passed 59-28.

The governor has set a 2025 goal of relying on alternative and renewable sources for 25 percent of the energy sold by West Virginia's producers. The policy counts several forms of "clean coal" technology as alternative sources. The bill approved Friday aims to encourage high efficiency coal-burning power plant boilers, capping the credits for less-efficient types.

"The bill allows coal to be used more efficiently to meet our energy needs and is a step forward for energy independence and for our natural resources industries," Manchin spokesman Matt Turner said Friday.

Manchin's fuel tax bill, passed 64-23, limits the annual changes to that levy that are based on average wholesale prices. Raising the tax's price floor from 97 cents per gallon to $2.34, the measure also sets a 10-percent range for any changes after 2010.

Republicans argued the bill would prevent the tax from dropping 1.7 cents per gallon Jan. 1, as currently projected. They also targeted the bill's provision making permanent a nickel-a-gallon component of the tax. Adopted as a temporary measure in 1993, it has since been repeatedly extended and would otherwise expire in 2013.

West Virginia's fuel taxes total 32.2 cents per gallon, ranking it 13th nationwide in figures compiled last month by the American Petroleum institute. Among its five neighbors, only Pennsylvania's are higher.

Manchin and his fellow Democrats in the Legislature argued that Friday's proposal makes more predictable this chief revenue source of the chronically strapped State Road Fund. West Virginia's government maintains 92 percent of the roads found within the state's borders, and is by that measure the sixth largest road system nationwide. The average for other states is 19 percent.

Other states holding autumn special sessions are largely wrestling with recession-blasted budgets. The key item on Manchin's agenda, passed Thursday, helps municipal police and fire pension plans deal with massive funding shortfalls.

The governor's other successful items include one allowing counties to sell up to $225 million in stimulus-related development bonds. A pair of funding measures distribute $28 million, with more than half that benefiting state Medicaid programs.

The sole failed bill offered a temporary reprieve from the way the state's public employers account for the cost of retiree health coverage. County school boards in particular are struggling with the reporting rules for these "other post-employment benefits."