CHARLESTON — As the state Senate's education omnibus bill heads to the House of Delegates, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey filed an opinion regarding one aspect of the measure.
Senate Bill 451, also known as the Comprehensive Education Reform Act, passed by an 18-16 vote Feb. 4 after a contentious legislative process through the Senate.
Morrisey issued his opinion Jan. 31 at the request of state Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson), who had asked if the bill satisfied the “single-object” requirement for legislation according to the state Constitution.
“Senate Bill 451 — at least in its current form — would likely pass constitutional scrutiny over the single-object test,” Morrisey wrote. “The bill relates to the general subject area of education reform, and although its provisions may have attracted considerable public attention and are currently the subject of significant legislative debate, a reviewing court would likely conclude that Senate Bill 451’s provisions are fairly classified as relating to a single object, and that its title provides fair notice of the important issues at stake. …
“The Supreme Court of Appeals has considered two types of challenges to legislation under this provision: whether the title provides fair and accurate notice of the changes a bill proposes, and whether the bill's sub-parts all have a common basis. These considerations safeguard the purposes of the broader ‘single-object’ requirement to increase transparency and avoid deceptive legislative tactics.
“With respect to the title requirement, we conclude that a reviewing court would very likely find that Senate Bill 451's detailed title provides fair notice of the specific topics and statutory sections the bill addresses. Similarly, Senate Bill 451 would likely satisfy the common subject-matter requirement. The topics contained in Senate Bill 451 all relate to the general subject of education reform, and although we are not aware of cases where the Supreme Court of Appeals has expressly upheld acts similar to Senate Bill 451, the bill is different from laws that the court has struck down in several material respects.”
Morrisey noted that his opinion addresses only the question Carmichael asked and that it doesn’t consider or take a position on the merits of the bill as a matter of policy.
SB451 passed the Committee of the Whole, which was the entire state Senate, on a 18-16 vote Jan. 31 to send the bill to the full Senate. Republican senators Kenny Mann (R-Monroe) and Bill Hamilton (R-Upshur) voted with Democrats against the bill.
Democrats have been critical not only of the bill, but also of how the Republican leadership handled it by first sending it to the Education Committee rather than Finance and then sending it to the Committee of the Whole, which is something that has been done twice in state history, the most recent being 1961.
The bill’s slim passage out of the Committee of the Whole came a day after an all-day hearing to discuss the bill. It also followed requests from Gov. Jim Justice and the state Department of Education saying the issues in the bill should be handled in separate piece of legislation rather than in a huge bundled bill.
Some county school boards and teacher’s groups have been critical of the bill as well, hinting that another walkout or even a strike might be on the horizon.
On Feb. 1 as the Senate considered amendments to the bill on its second reading, leaders of education unions said local votes next week could authorize more teacher walkouts over the possible passage of the bill
The bill would overhaul the state’s education system. It would provide for additional student support positions, banking of sick days for retirement, a 5 percent average pay raise, legalizing charter schools, providing public funds for educational savings accounts, mandating an increase in property tax levies without a public vote and redirecting public school funds to private and religious schools.
Other provisions that have drawn criticism are one that would withhold teacher pay if schools are closed due to a work stoppage as well as a non-severability clause, which says that if any part of the bill is challenged, the entire act would be voided.