CHARLESTON (AP) - A push to impose stricter conflict-of-interest standards on West Virginia's attorney general has fizzled in the state Senate.
Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, says there's little interest in his committee to hear the bill, which targets Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. With Saturday's finish to the legislative session approaching, Palumbo said the bill is close to dead.
The proposal stems from Morrisey's ties to two pharmaceutical companies, Cardinal Health and Sanofi, his office was suing.
Former attorney general Darrell McGraw initiated the suit over prescription pill profits the companies made in West Virginia. Morrisey recused himself after taking office. Two other state agencies are now overseeing the case.
Morrisey lobbied for Sanofi and his wife lobbies for both companies.
The proposal would prohibit the attorney general from overseeing cases against companies that pay or have paid the attorney general or his family in the past five years. The attorney general also couldn't take legal stances conflicting with state entities or officials.
In the bill, the Legislature would also have more control doling out money that the attorney general directly controls currently, what Del. Tim Manchin, D-Marion, called the legal officer's "slush fund."
Palumbo said the consensus was that there are already ethical standards in place for lawyers that apply to the attorney general. He said there was also concern about another part of the bill, which would give the governor oversight of lawyers that the attorney general would have to hire during conflicts.
"I talked to most, if not all, the members, and there just hasn't been much interest in doing anything with that," Palumbo said of the bill Wednesday.
The bill furthered a tussle between House Democrats and Morrisey, West Virginia's first Republican attorney general in 80 years. The House passed the bill along party lines on Feb. 24.
Morrisey has said the legislation singles out one office, while letting the governor and lawmakers abide by current conflict standards. He said the bill would cost millions of dollars in hiring outside lawyers and could jeopardize ongoing investigations.
House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said the attorney general should be held to the highest standard because of the uniqueness of the judicial-executive hybrid job.
COMMITTEE ADVANCES ABORTION BAN BILL
A bill to prohibit abortions later than 20 weeks after conception moved forward Thursday in the state Senate Judiciary Committee and will be heard on the full Senate floor later this week.
The bill bans abortions after 20 weeks except in cases when a doctor deems a patient at risk of serious physical impairment or death. The mental health of the patient is not to be considered a determining factor, under the bill.
The committee amended the bill to allow termination if a fetus isn't medically viable, but doctors must provide the best opportunity for fetuses to survive after 20 weeks.
Moreover, the bill says that doctors must report all abortions to the state Department of Health and Human Resources. Each report must include the post-fertilization age of the fetus and how that determination was made. In the case of abortions performed after 20 weeks, doctors' reports must justify their decision and show they have provided the best opportunity for the fetus to survive.
The bill orders the Health Department to issue an annual report of abortion statistics starting by June 30, 2016.
Doctors, who could be fined up to $4,000 if they violate the law, told the committee the law could delay a woman's care.
"This bill criminalizes accepted medical standards, and it eliminates our ability to care for patients," said Dr. Stephen Bush, chairman of the obstetrics and gynecology department at West Virginia University in Charleston. He said these regulations might make doctors afraid of being fined, causing them to wait longer before inducing labor and putting the mother at risk.
The bill sets the abortion ban at 20 weeks post-conception, but Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, explained that most physicians calculate weeks from a woman's last menstrual cycle. In essence, the bill is a 22 week bill, he said.
Doctors said most fetuses are considered medically viable at 24 weeks or 500 grams in weight. Neither of the two physicians who spoke Thursday said they had seen a fetus survive outside the womb prior to 24 weeks. Bush said only 40 to 50 percent of children born at 24 weeks survive.
Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, asked for someone to speak to the constitutionality of the bill. The committee attorney said other states have passed similar 20 week bills that have been deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. He said states are not allowed to prohibit abortions prior to fetal viability.
John Carey, with West Virginians for Life, said the Senate bill speaks to pain inflicted on the fetus and not fetal viability. He said the Constitution allows for abortion bans based on pain.
When asked Wednesday whether he would sign the abortion bill, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said he would take a look at it if it passed the Senate floor. The House passed the bill in February.
Senate budget dips into rainy day fund
The West Virginia Senate has passed a budget bill that dips into the state's reserve funds by $125 million to balance the 2015 budget.
Finance Chair Roman Prezioso said a House lottery bill still under consideration would cut the amount needed from the Rainy Day fund by $40 million. House Bill 4333 redistributes lottery proceeds that currently go to greyhound breeders.
Prezioso said $220 million is the amount that can be spent from the nearly $1 billion reserve fund without jeopardizing bond ratings.
He said if tax revenues aren't increased during the next legislative session, he expects a significant portion of the fund will be needed to balance the 2016 budget.
The House is scheduled to pass a budget measure Friday and a compromise reached during next week's extended session.
Senators pass ban
on exotic animals
The Senate has approved legislation to prohibit the sale and ownership of wild and dangerous animals like bears, large cats, constricting snakes and alligators.
Sen. Ronald Miller said the Wild Dangerous Animal Act allows the commission of Agriculture to establish permits and fees to register wild animals currently living in captivity. It also exempts zoos and veterinary hospitals.
Violators could expect up to $2,000 in fines for each animal.
Miller said West Virginia is one of only six states without a similar law.
Sen. Dave Sypolt questioned whether West Virginia needs the law if federal law already prevents ownership of such animals.
Sypolt said only eight incidents involving dangerous wild animals have occurred in the state in 16 years.
The House must now approve changes to the bill.
Rape evidence bill clears Senate
Legislation to regulate and improve the training of nurses who collect forensic evidence in sexual assault cases has passed in both the Senate and House.
The Senate passed the bill Thursday to create a Sexual Assault Forensic Examination Commission to regulate these specially trained registered nurses at the county and state levels.
Sen. Corey Palumbo said the bill aims to address inadequacies in the collection of evidence in sexual assault cases. He said not every health facility currently has a trained sexual assault nurse, which can impede or prevent evidence collection.
The bill's sponsor, Del. Barbara Fleischauer, has said the State Forensics Lab estimates up to 75 percent of rape kits have collection or documentation errors.
The House must now approve changes made to the bill.
fairness act advances
The Senate has passed legislation to help accommodate pregnant women in the workplace.
The Pregnant Workers' Fairness Act allows pregnant employees to request modified duties and other accommodations, such as bathroom breaks and help with manual labor, as long as they do not place undue hardship on employers.
The measure also requires employers to provide nursing women time to express breast milk. It bars employers from turning away a qualified job applicant out of concern she might be ask the employer to make some adjustments due to her pregnancy.
Under the bill, pregnant workers may file complaints against employers through the West Virginia Human Rights Commission and the commission may investigate claims relating to pregnancy.
Only Monongalia Democrat Robert Beach voted against the bill.
The bill has been passed in both the House and the Senate, and will now be sent to the governor for his signature.
Senate gives approval to privatization
The Senate has passed legislation to allow Cedar Lakes Conference Center in Ripley to become a for-profit business outside the scope of the State Board of Education.
The bill passed Thursday allows Cedar Lakes Conference Center to set salaries of its employees. In the past, the minimum salary requirements for school service personnel have applied to the center's employees.
Sen. Mitch Carmichael said last year's education audit indicated the center, which organized recreation and educational opportunities for Future Farmers and Future Homemakers of America, no longer fit under the education board's scope.
He said it was a shame to see it divested from the state but looks forward to it being viable in the private sector.
The bill now goes to the governor.