This article originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

March 2, 2005

Governor holds on to coalition, momentum

By Lawrence Messina
The Associated Press

Gov. Joe Manchin sounded like he knew he was in for a bumpy ride last week when he prefaced his administration’s outline of its wide-ranging legislative agenda.

“Some people will think we’ve gone too far, and others will think we did not go far enough,’’ he told the joint House-Senate assembly. “When we leave the day’s work, I hope we always remember the respect we have for each other.’’

Some lawmakers indeed found themselves in one of those two camps by the end of the two-hour presentation, particularly regarding the governor’s lawsuit and insurance proposals. The question-and-answer session approached testy at times.

Manchin has proposed banning certain lawsuits filed against insurers by nonpolicyholders in exchange for $50 million worth of rate rollbacks that the state’s largest providers of auto policies have promised him. It has become the next big test of the goodwill the new governor has with the Legislature, and of the coalition that brought him victory in November.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce signaled the battle to come Friday by declaring Manchin’s proposal a “disappointment.’’

“Governor Manchin’s bill has no teeth,’’ Lisa Rickard, a chamber spokeswoman, said of the yet-to-be-introduced legislation. “West Virginians are the real losers today.’’

The state Chamber of Commerce endorsed Manchin, a Democrat, in 2004 over Republican nominee Monty Warner. Unaware of the U.S. Chamber’s statement Friday, state chamber President Steve Roberts said his group remains the governor’s ally.

“We do believe that West Virginia needs a comprehensive approach to this problem,’’ Roberts said. “Being here in West Virginia, we’ve really chosen a route of working with the governor.’’

The West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association says it, too, remains part of Manchin’s coalition, though it believes his proposal goes too far.

“We are willing to work with the governor and help him eliminate frivolous lawsuits,’’ President Bill Richardson said. “[But] to totally abolish a cause of action that has been there for 20 years is not weak. That’s a nuclear response.’’

Richardson said his group took part in informal talks between Team Manchin and the affected special interests that helped the administration draft its bills.

“I can’t say the whole process was unsatisfactory,’’ said Richardson, adding, “We were not allowed to negotiate or offer any counterpoints to that $50 million.’’

But such responses, and even Thursday’s question-and-answer grilling, do not shake the faith in Manchin held by the Democrats who control the House and Senate.

“I’d be disappointed if some quarters didn’t say that it either goes too far or doesn’t go far enough,’’ said House Judiciary Chairman Jon Amores, D-Kanawha, and a supporter of lawsuit limits.

“To a significant degree, the governor’s proposal set the mark,’’ continued Amores, a lawyer. “The governor and his team have recognized political realities. [The presentation] showed they are interested in feedback. The tone was definitely not ‘take it or leave it.’ ‘’

Senate Minority Leader Vic Sprouse, R-Kanawha, vowed to unveil a competing anti-lawsuit bill today, while his House counterpart did not rule out a similar GOP-led effort there.

“Many of us feel that more needs to be done, more needs to be proposed and considered,’’ said House Minority Leader Charles Trump, R-Morgan.

But Trump said questions over Manchin’s legislation have not ended the so-called honeymoon between his administration and lawmakers.

Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin agreed and predicted Manchin will end up getting most of what he wants.

The honeymoon, he said, “can’t be over this quick. We’d have to have an annulment!’’

Associated Press writer Erik Schelzig contributed to this report.

Status of major bills

The status of bills of interest, 20 days into the 60-day legislative session:

Budget: (HB2005, SB145) Gov. Joe Manchin’s $3.26 billion general revenue proposal for the fiscal year starting July 1. Versions pending in House, Senate finance committees.

Campaign finance: (HB2486, SB247) Would create pilot program for publicly funded election campaigns. Versions pending in House, Senate judiciary committees.

Child nursing: (HB2450, SB228) Would allow mothers to breast-feed infants in public. Versions pending in House Judiciary Committee, Senate Health and Human Resources Committee.

Ethics: (SB153) Manchin’s “fix’’ of the special-session ethics bill. The bill removes a provision targeting people who disclose Ethics Commission complaints before a probable cause finding. Passed Senate Feb. 17; pending in House Judiciary Committee.

Meth labs: (HB2195, SB147) Would limit access to key ingredient of methamphetamine. Versions pending in Senate Health and Human Resources Committee, House Judiciary Committee.

Pension bond: (SB261) Sets June 25 special election for Manchin’s proposed sale of up to $5.5 billion in bonds for state retirement programs. Passed House and Senate last week.

Seat belts: (HB2340) Would allow law enforcement to cite lack of seat belts as primary reason for traffic stop. Pending in House Judiciary Committee.

Unborn violence: (SB146) Would treat a woman and her unborn child as separate victims for most violent crimes. Passed Senate Feb. 15. Pending in House Judiciary Committee.

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