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Higher education bill passes

by Randy Coleman

The Associated Press

CHARLESTON -- Lawmakers approved an 11th-hour proposal Saturday night that would change the way West Virginia's colleges and universities would be funded and governed.

The higher education bill was one of three high-profile measures that came down to the final hours of the Legislature's 60-day session.

Lawmakers also approved the sale of $4 billion in bonds to cover three retirement programs and voted to deregulate electric power in West Virginia. House and Senate leaders, however, could not come to terms on a fix for the state Public Employees Insurance Agency.

The higher education proposal allows colleges to keep their community college programs for at least one year. At that time, an "implementation board" will review each college's program.

The bill, SB653, passes 30-4 in the Senate and 68-31 in the House.

Gov. Cecil Underwood said earlier Saturday he was concerned such important legislation was put together in a few, highly stressed hours. The measure has been called the most important piece of legislation this session.

Underwood also said he was concerned because no one on the state's two higher education boards have been consulted.

Several lawmakers also complained about the whirlwind nature in which the bill was being considered. The first version was introduced in the Senate Feb. 25.

"We got the bill too late. I have really mixed feelings because of that," said Delegate Margarette Leach, D-Cabell, whose district includes Marshall.

Senate and House education leaders worked Friday night and most of Saturday to come to terms on the differences between both houses.

After spirited debates in the Senate and the House, state lawmakers also voted to sell $4 billion in bonds to cover unfunded liabilities in the teachers, judicial and State Police retirement funds.

Senators and delegates debated the state's need to save money on its long-term debts versus the size of the bond sale. Some lawmakers also wanted voters to decide the issue.

The vote to take on the bond sale was one-sided. The Senate passed the bill 27-6, while the House passed the measure 76-19.

By refinancing the debt at an interest rate lower than the 8 percent now being paid, the state could save $6 million to $30 million a year, according to the Underwood administration.

Proponents say the bond sale would reduce the pension debt. Under the current payment plan, the debt would grow to $4.6 billion by 2015. Under the bond plan, the debt would be $1 billion less than that by 2012 and $2 billion less by 2018.

The state would have to pay about 1 percent of the bond sale in lawyer and underwriter fees, estimated at between $31 million and $41 million.

Several lawmakers suggested the state Supreme Court might have to review the proposal to determine if it passes constitutional muster.

In another action, both houses approved a plan to deregulate electric generation in West Virginia.

Lawmakers acknowledged deregulation would increase residential rates but would allow utility companies to produce power cheaper. Several senators said passage of the bill is critical to West Virginia's economic development.

Public Service Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Lane, who pushed deregulation, hailed the action a "victory for all of West Virginia."

The Senate and the House also passed versions of Underwood's $2.7 billion budget. Representatives from both houses are expected to meet next week to hammer out a budget compromise.

Lawmakers say the budget has been saved by $52 million provided by a national settlement with major tobacco producers.

Tomblin and House Speaker Bob Kiss met with teachers union officials to work out an acceptable bill to change PEIA, but the measure didn't make it to a vote in the House by midnight.

The proposal called for the state to pay no more than 80 percent of the premium for individuals or 75 percent of the premium for families for anyone hired after July 1. The state now generally pays 90 percent of the premium while employees pay 10.

Teachers' unions opposed the measure and pressured lawmakers to reject it. The unions also didn't want to give up a provision that allows teachers and other public employees to trade unused sick leave for future PEIA coverage.

Two other high-profile bills -- proposals to enact a 17.5 percent tax on smokeless tobacco and to tax and regulate gray machines -- also died.

Also, in a rare move, the House on Friday approved a measure that would extend the legislative session beyond Saturday. That extension would apply only to one measure, a constitutional amendment to exempt the military pensions of all veterans from the state income tax.

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