Tensions were high Friday in the Senate as a motion to move a bill to the chamber’s Finance Committee turned into a debate over the procedures Senators with years of experience say are being ignored by some members of the majority party.
Senate Bill 219 creates criminal penalties for involvement in a conspiracy to violate drug laws. It would establish penalties based upon the quantities of illicit drugs that are possessed or delivered.
Those penalties range from a 5 to 15 year sentence for a conspiracy involving less than one gram to a 20 to 60 year sentence for more than a kilo, or two pounds, of a drug.
“This bill is aimed at the large scale drug dealers, the top tier guys," Republican Sen. Ryan Weld, the bills lead sponsor, said on the floor Friday.
But Democratic Sen. Ron Miller argued it is possible the new crime with such high penalties could have a significant financial impact on the state. That's why he moved to have the bill considered by the Senate Finance Committee.
Based on West Virginia Division of Corrections data from 2016, Miller estimated the bill could have an additional $8.4 million annual price tag.
“We’re not going to kill the bill," Republican Senate Finance Chair Mike Hall said in support of the motion, "and by the time it gets to the floor everyone will have seen it and there’s no harm in that.”
The Senate’s members are evenly split between the Finance and Judiciary Committees so all members would have discussed the bill in committee if the motion were adopted.
After a close voice vote, a count of members showed that there was not enough support for the motion. It died 15-18.
That decision immediately sparked backlash from members of the Democratic Party, including Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, a former Finance chair.
“I’m very discouraged by the fact that we’ve not allowed the process to work and I hope that this process doesn’t continue," he said, "because we have certainly more financial implications that we’ve got to look at when you’re looking at a state with $500 million in the rear, and if we’re going to start this pettiness back and forth, I’m deeply concerned what may happen the rest of this session.”
Prezioso told his fellow members that when a major committee chair asks to see a bill, they are extended that courtesy, but Judiciary Chair Charles Trump defended the vote.
He said his committee did consider the cost to the state—a $26,000 per year per inmate price tag—but that the number of inmates who will be sentenced under this particular bill can’t be calculated.
“Despite the best efforts of anybody to make that prediction, I think it is at the moment unascertainable. There’s no way to find the answer,” he said.
As the debate continued, even after the motion had been decided, tensions continued to rise until Prezioso moved to recess.
Democrats rushed from the chamber as members of the Republican leadership met on the floor. After the recess, Trump moved to reconsider the action.
“There’s a reason I’m on the Judiciary Committee and not on the Finance Committee and I should not presume ever that just because I cannot figure out how something could be calculated that no one can,” Trump told his fellow members.
Senators once again voted on the motion to move Senate Bill 219 to the Finance Committee, this time with a different outcome. The bill was sent to the committee.