House committee advances campus carry bill
CHARLESTON - In what is likely to be a speed bump on the fast track to passage, legislation to require public colleges and universities to permit individuals with conceal carry permits to carry firearms on campus was taken up and advanced by the House Finance Committee on Thursday evening.
Delegates earlier Thursday voted by voice vote to send House Bill 2519, with an estimated $11.6 million cost in its first full year of implementation, to the committee for further review.
It had been slated to be on first reading on the House floor, following a 51-47 vote Wednesday evening to waive the Finance Committee reference.
That was despite estimates from the Higher Education Policy Commission putting the cost of the first full year of implementation of the legislation at $11.6 million to pay for “additional police officers, security guards and other staff, protective gear, weapons, metal detectors, vehicles, body cams, lockers, security cameras, door locks, emergency dispatch equipment and training.”
While critics said that HEPC had inflated potential costs for a bill opposed by college and university administrators, House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, called on delegates Thursday to send the bill to the Finance Committee, saying it is prudent that all bills with sizable amounts of potential cost be reviewed by the committee.
“I know there’s a great deal of skepticism of fiscal notes, but we’re dealing with our colleges and universities,” he said.
“I think it’s a dangerous precedent for our body to ignore a fiscal note of this size,” Shott added.
Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor - who made the motion Wednesday to waive the Finance Committee reference - and Finance Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, spoke in support of Shott’s motion Thursday.
So did Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, who said the legislators should not bend the rules simply because they’re passionate about an issue, alluding to shortcuts the Senate took in an ill-fated attempt to win passage of the omnibus education bill.
“The prudent thing to do with an eight-figure fiscal note is to follow the process,” he said.
Ultimately, however, the bill got relatively short shrift in the Finance Committee, advancing back to the full House with no amendments offered and with only a cursory review of the details of the fiscal note.
Without taking a position on the merits of the bill, Del. Vernon Criss, R-Wood, called on the committee to take an in-depth look at higher education funding, saying colleges and universities cannot continue to absorb a combination of ongoing funding cuts and additional unfunded legislative mandates.
“We continue to cut, cut, cut, and we ask them to pay more,” he said.
As drafted, the bill provides no way for colleges and universities to recoup costs of implementing campus carry, except that institutions can charge students to store firearms in secured on-campus storage facilities mandated in the bill.
Meanwhile, in Morgantown on Thursday, West Virginia University Vice President Rob Alsop and Provost Joyce McDonnell hosted the third of three Campus Conversation hearings for faculty, staff and students on the legislation.
“I would say the majority of those who spoke expressed concerns about the legislation,” he said. “There were some supporters.”
While WVU administration prefers that decisions on firearms safety and all other campus matters be made at the local level by the university’s board of governors and not by the Legislature, Alsop said the reality is that the bill has considerable support among legislators and is likely to pass.
“We think it has a lot of support, and we’re trying to protect those areas most sensitive to us,” he said.
He said the university is working to preserve exceptions amended into the bill by the Judiciary Committee.
Adopted Tuesday, the Judiciary amendment reduces the minimum seating capacity of stadiums or arenas where firearms could be prohibited from 1,500 to 1,000 seats, and expands the number of on-campus locations where firearms would be prohibited to include patient care facilities, mental health counseling facilities and laboratories containing hazardous materials.
It also allows institutions to designate residence halls where firearms would be permitted in common areas, and requires those institutions to provide a secure firearms storage area in those dorms.
“Our position is local control, but given the support, what we’ve been focused on is the preservation of exceptions for the most sensitive areas,” Alsop said, adding that WVU President Gordon Gee has not formally taken a position on the bill.
On Thursday, Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert issued a statement opposing the legislation.
“Marshall University remains steadfast in its opposition to guns on college campuses,” he said. “The safety and security of our students, faculty and staff is of paramount importance to us, and this legislation threatens the very foundation of that responsibility.”
Gilbert read the statement during the faculty senate meeting Thursday afternoon and received applause.
Marshall faculty is also distributing a petition in opposition, which has been signed by more than 200 people, including faculty, staff and students.
At WVU, faculty and students picketed on campus Thursday in opposition to the bill. A protest is being organized for Friday, Feb. 22, at the Capitol in Charleston as well.
At a Judiciary Committee public hearing on the NRA-backed bill on Feb. 11, opponents of the bill outnumbered proponents by a more than three-to-one margin and included college administrators, students, parents and law enforcement officers.
Also in the Finance Committee on Thursday, committee members originated legislation to advance Gov. Jim Justice’s promise to dedicate a total of $150 million to a reserve fund to help offset future cost increases for state-managed PEIA health insurance coverage.