At Legislature, governing debate continues
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Whether it comes to seat belts, child care centers or raw milk, the debate over when government should step in continues at the West Virginia Legislature.
Since the session began in February, lawmakers have sparred over scores of measures in committees and on the House and Senate floors. The House's close 55-44 passage of a stricter seat belt law last week showcased the recurring divide.
Touting saved lives, supporters cited estimates that the bill's threat of a traffic stop and fine would increase seat belt use by 6 percent. West Virginia now falls below the national rate for seat belt use, and has the fourth-worst road death rate, according to the latest federal figures.
Several opponents embraced the value of seat belts, but argued that whether an adult wears one is a matter of individual choice.
"Mountaineers are always free until a politician decides that you're not," said Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason, during the floor debate.
These recurring tensions aren't necessarily partisan. The seat belt vote saw both Republicans and Democrats break ranks. Delegate Patrick Lane said such issues can unite the conservative and liberal wings of the Legislature when the question of government involvement arises.
"It's an interesting coalition that's been put together around less interference by government in our daily lives," said Lane, a Kanawha County Republican. "It's an ongoing debate<t40>...<t$>. For some members it's a guiding principle, for some members it's issue-to-issue."
The November election also increased the GOP ranks in the House. That whittled down the Democratic majority on committees often to just one or two seats. Several committees have since seen regulatory measures passed by narrow votes, significantly amended or derailed.
"It's a very old debate, the rights of the individual versus the rights of the public," said House Health and Human Resources Chair Don Perdue. "It will continue as long as there's a republic."
The Wayne County Democrat's committee has experienced several examples of this divide. A proposed rule governing child care centers bogged down last month following failed attempts to scale it back. Among other provisions targeted by GOP-led amendments, the rule sought to remove a religious exemption to required child immunizations.
"There are important things of conscience that come before us <t40>...<t$> a religious exemption is absolutely critical," House Minority Leader Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, said during that debate. "What we're talking about is the government putting you in a difficult position, putting a parent in a difficult position."
Perdue's committee also voted in early March to amend a bill so it allowed raw milk sales. State agriculture officials had reported that raw milk from Pennsylvania caused an illness outbreak in West Virginia and at least two other states last summer. But during that debate, Lane cited how 20 states ban sales and that federal figures show 122 outbreaks between 1993 and 2006. Of the 1,576 people who got sick, 202 were hospitalized.
"In 30 states across the country, out of that large population that has raw milk available to them, 202 people became sick enough from drinking it to go to the hospital," Lane told fellow committee members. "I think we can make this decision on our own."
Lane believes the November election results reflected a concern among voters about overreach, whether by legislators or government agencies. He estimated that the rules for the various agencies and programs at the Department of Health and Human Resources, for instance, clock in at 2,500 pages.
"That is law that is made by the administrative agency, and that has expanded over the years," Lane said. "And as that flows, I think there's now an understanding among elected members that it has become an overreach and maybe time for it to ebb back the other way."
But Lane also said the committees this session have also seen a bipartisan questioning of proposals.
"While sometimes it can be a sort of partisan debate up there, sometimes you'll have the most conservative and most liberal members of the committee both questioning a similar issue in the bill," Lane said.
"I appreciate that, and I think that creates a better byproduct, when there is that interest in how far does this go, how far should this go, is this really the right policy for our citizens and for the state, and is it going to move us forward or is it going to hold us back?"
Associated Press writer David Gutman contributed to this report.