As many as 25 state employees are waiting to learn their fate after legislation passed earlier this month that would eliminate the Office of Administrative Hearings, the branch of the Department of Transportation that hears driver’s license suspension hearings for DUI violations.
Under the bill, which passed the Legislature on March 6, magistrates or circuit judges would handle both the criminal and administrative sides of driving under the influence charges (SB 130).
The bill, awaiting action by Gov. Jim Justice, would eliminate the OAH, which has 16 employees, and eliminate the need for nine deputy attorneys general who serve as administrative hearings counsel.
Proponents of the measure, which passed the Senate 33-0 and the House of Delegates 59-41, say it will streamline and consolidate the two processes.
“This bill, if enacted into law, will eliminate the situation we have in West Virginia where people suffer the loss of their license when they’re found innocent of driving under the influence,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Charlie Trump, R-Morgan, lead proponent of the bill, said on the Senate floor.
In the House, Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, described the current process of separate criminal and administrative license revocation hearings as “double jeopardy,” noting, “A lot of states do it this way. It’s fairness.”
Critics, including Delegate Nathan Brown, D-Mingo, said the bill would revert the state back to the mid-1980s, when the system of magistrate hearings for license revocations was changed because it allowed too many drunk drivers to retain their licenses and allowed habitual drunk drivers to repeatedly plead to first-offense DUI charges in order to minimize the length of license suspensions.
Brown noted that the Legislature enacted the dual-track criminal/administrative process “to take the politics out of driver’s license revocations.”
Mothers Against Drunk Driving also has objected to the legislation. In an op-ed distributed to state newspapers, national President Helen Witty said the change would make West Virginia one of only 10 states without an administrative license revocation law — a program that, along with a mandatory interlock program, has helped reduce state traffic fatalities.
“Since 2008, drunk driving deaths in West Virginia have fallen by 60 percent, from more than 110 that year to 57 in 2018. That is extraordinary,” Witty stated.
In its fiscal note for the bill, the Department of Transportation warned the state could be at risk of losing $29.36 million of federal highways funds each year if it fails to enforce laws to prevent repeat intoxicated drivers.
In response, Delegate Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, told the House that nothing in the bill’s change to a consolidated process would necessarily put the federal highways funds at risk.
“We can’t guarantee, if it’s poorly administered, that we won’t lose federal highways funding,” he added.
Some advocates of the bill stressed that eliminating the OAH would be a step toward reducing government bureaucracy.
“For everybody in this room that promotes and campaigns on reducing the size of the administrative state, this is what we’re talking about,” said Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh.
Elimination of the office, which currently has a total of four administrative staff, along with 12 hearing examiners around the state, would save just over $2 million a year.
According to the fiscal note, about $920,000 of that total covers salaries and expenses for nine deputy attorneys general who serve as administrative hearings counsel.
On Thursday, Curtis Johnson, press secretary for Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, said employment status for those attorneys is being evaluated.
“The Attorney General’s Office values the contribution by each of these attorneys, who reside across West Virginia,” Johnson said. “We are evaluating what should happen if the governor signs the legislation, and will do everything in our power to assist these individuals.”
Officials with the Department of Transportation and the Office of Administrative Hearings did not respond to requests for comment about the employment outlook for the 16 OAH employees if the bill becomes law.