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CURRENT STORIES


Legislators meet in special session

by Lawrence Messina

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHARLESTON -- The Legislature approved funding Tuesday to provide flood relief, lessen the pain of looming welfare cuts and preserve the state's community-based Starting Points centers during a brief special session convened by Gov. Bob Wise.

Wise's agenda also included a $9 million measure applying surplus lottery funds toward the debt to Workers' Compensation created by May's sale of Weirton Steel to Ohio's International Steel Group.

Lawmakers considered 29 items contained in 13 bills during the Tuesday evening session. The measures largely supplement spending for this budget year and the one that begins July 1.

The flood relief bill (HB204) adds $7 million to the Governor's Civil Contingency Fund. A series of recent storms triggered flooding and mudslides in 24 counties now covered by a federal disaster declaration.

"That's an amount sufficient to maintain current flood relief efforts," said Joe Martin, the governor's legislative liaison. "We expect the Legislature to provide additional flood relief at a subsequent special session."

The welfare measure (HB212) increases funding for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program by $5 million. Officials have said recently that $42 million needs to be cut by Aug. 1 to keep TANF within its budget.

The bill does not specify how the extra funds will lessen the planned cuts.

"We're basically leaving it up to the administration to take a look at the various services to see what can be done," House Finance Chairman Harold Michael, D-Hardy, told members. "It's up to the secretary (of Health and Human Resources) and the governor to make the final determination."

Lawmakers sent $670,000 to Starting Points, having reduced funding when they passed the budget for 2004-2005. The 17 centers offer an array of community-based family services.

The Workers' Compensation measure (SB2011) covers this year's portion of the $70 million in future costs left by Weirton Steel. A federal bankruptcy judge ruled that buyer ISG did not have to assume that debt, leaving the 130 other self insured-employers in the lurch.

Martin said the measure passed Tuesday does not foreclose Wise from asking lawmakers to consider his tobacco bond proposal, which he touted as a remedy for Weirton Steel's debt, at a future special session.

"This step was necessary now to foreclose the need on an assessment to be levied on the remaining participants in the self-insured pool," Martin said.

Other bills on the list provide $3 million for PROMISE scholarships, $7 million to allow the Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority to issue building bonds and $400,000 to develop the Hatfield-McCoy recreational trail system.

One bill (SB2002) allows the state Economic Development Authority to buy Charleston's Morris Square and then lease it back to the city. The EDA's ownership would clear the way for a bond to build the new baseball stadium Charleston proposes for the site.

As part of Wise's call, the Legislature also adopted resolutions honoring former President Ronald Reagan and ex-state Sen. George Blackburn "Buffy" Warner Jr. Both Republicans died earlier this month.