CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, acting as governor, Wednesday asked the Legislature to add $2 million to the Department of Environmental Protection's budget to enhance the department's ability to inspect gas well sites, in light of the failure to pass legislation to regulate Marcellus Shale drilling this session.Tomblin reiterated Wednesday that differences between House and Senate versions of the bill are too broad to attempt to resolve them in an immediate special session."Because of the divide that exists, I do not believe a special session is warranted at this time," Tomblin said during an afternoon news conference.Environmental and citizens groups have called for a special session on Marcellus drilling.In the short term, Tomblin said he believes the DEP can effectively regulate the burgeoning Marcellus Shale industry with the new inspectors and with new in-house regulations.DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said the additional funds, which will need to be added to the 2011-12 budget bill, would allow the department to hire eight or nine additional inspectors, who would be assigned to parts of the state where Marcellus Shale drilling is most active."We believe that is something that is necessary, and would be done immediately," he said.Huffman said the DEP has some authority to enact emergency rules on regulation of Marcellus Shale drilling, within a limited scope of issues, such as matters involving water management.Agencies that have rulemaking authority can immediately enforce emergency rules, while all other rule changes must be approved by the Legislature, though its Rulemaking Review process, before they go into effect.Tomblin asked legislators to take the additional $2 million for DEP out of the overall $4 billion 2011-12 general revenue budget, but did not specify what accounts should have funding reduced to raise that amount.
House-Senate budget conferees met briefly in public Wednesday afternoon, but did not take up the DEP budget.It was the second meeting of the committee during the extended session, which began Sunday. At the current pace, the full Legislature is not likely to vote on passage of the budget bill until Saturday or Sunday.Also Wednesday, Tomblin reiterated that he does not intend to call a special session following passage of the budget bill to act on a funding plan to pay down an $8 billion unfunded liability for future health care benefits for retired state and public school employees, known as the OPEB liability.However, he said resolution of the liability could be close to reality."We may have something that will work in the near future out there," said Tomblin, who opposed the House's proposal to use $250 million of state Rainy Day emergency reserve funds to start to pay down the long-term debt.
However, Tomblin said he does expect legislators to take up veto messages during the weeklong extended session for the budget bill, to make corrections to bills that had to be vetoed for technical errors.As of Wednesday, the governor's office had identified two bills that will need to be vetoed because of errors: A bill to toughen the state Ethics Act (HB2464), and a bill to require at least one member of the Public Service Commission attend any public hearings on rate increases (HB2663).Both bills passed Saturday, after being in House-Senate conference committees. Omissions reportedly occurred in transferring the conferees' reports into bill form.Tomblin said that, as of Wednesday afternoon, he has not seen any bills he intends to veto for substantive issues. However, he noted that a number of bills passed in the waning hours of the session have yet to reach the governor's office.Reach Phil Kabler at email@example.com or 304-348-1220.