West Virginia Passes Texting Ban

March 14, 2012

West Virginia lawmakers ended their 60-day legislative session last weekend by passing agreements on fighting methamphetamine labs and targeting distracted drivers.

A unanimous Senate vote and an 80-8 vote in the House of Delegates approved tighter purchase limits for cold remedies used to make meth. These would bar individuals seeking pseudoephedrine from buying more than 3.6 grams per day, 7.2 grams per month and 48 grams per year. The caps are part of legislation proposed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to tackle various forms of substance abuse.

A special House-Senate committee reached a compromise over Tomblin’s bid to deter texting and hand-held cellphone use while driving. The final bill will phase in the ban on using a cellphone while driving. Beginning this summer, the violation would be a secondary offense. Next summer, violating the hand-held cellphone ban would be a primary offense and drivers could be stopped.

Lawmakers also adjusted the fines and a third violation of the texting and cellphone bans would cost drivers $300 and add three penalty points to their license.

Another approved measure, sent unanimously to Tomblin, limits benefit caps to applied behavioral analysis in a new law requiring insurance coverage for autism. Language in the 2011 law applied those caps to all autism treatment, greatly diluting the benefit. This treatment is considered crucial for many diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. The new law also allows insurers to take steps to contain costs when autism coverage increases a plan’s overall annual spending by at least 1 percent.

Tomblin secured several key items in his session agenda ahead of the final day on Saturday. Those address mine safety, slash property taxes in exchange for a multibillion-dollar chemical processing plant, extend a tax break for the timber industry and resolve a public retiree health care funding shortfall.

Tomblin’s substance abuse bill would have West Virginia join a tracking system for cold remedy purchases, but lawmakers must renew this enrollment in the National Precursor Log Exchange by January 2015. The measure would also step up scrutiny of pain drug prescriptions and the clinics that dispense them, and increase oversight of methadone treatment centers.

“That doesn’t seem to be a very well-reasoned approach,” Armstead said.

The Kanawha County lawyer also said such legislation could cost the GOP support needed for the study of West Virginia’s criminal justice system that Tomblin seeks from the Justice Center at the nonpartisan Council of State Governments. These reviews have recently helped Texas, North Carolina and Ohio with similar issues.

“If we’re really going to study this comprehensively, then I think it’s premature to try to go off in this direction with this bill,” Armstead said. “If you pass something of this nature ahead of a study, then it sort of sets the stage for that study and moves it in a certain direction. What I’d like to see is a study that starts from scratch.”

Sen. Dan Foster called the House’s move a mistake.

The Kanawha County Democrat said the bill contained commonsense changes that the study would likely also recommend. And in the meantime the jails will continue to fill up with offenders who should be in a prison — creating the risk of riots or that the courts will order the prisons emptied.

“It’s an election year and there’s a concern by some about being soft on crime. But unfortunately that doesn’t get us past the issue at hand, which is the hope that we don’t have to build another $150 or $200 million prison,” said Foster, who is not running for re-election. “Waiting another year is not the right answer.”

With the regular session over, the House and Senate must still complete a new state budget. A conference committee will work on the proposed $11.6 billion spending plan during an extended session expected the last the upcoming week.

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