CHARLESTON – The 2019 regular session of the West Virginia Legislature came to an end at midnight Saturday, and just in time. It’s hard to recall when there was such acrimony among lawmakers under the Capitol dome.
Nerves fray when 134 people are together for 60 days, arguing over often controversial issues. Clashes of personalities and policy are inevitable. However, this session was particularly caustic. There were several reasons for this:
First, there were two highly contentious issues — the education reform bill and the campus carry bill.
The session began on a sour note, with Democrats and the teacher unions accusing Senate Republicans of trying to ram through a sweeping education bill. The bill triggered a two-day teachers’ strike and the Capitol was again filled with angry educators and service workers.
The bill that would have allowed individuals with a concealed carry permit to carry a gun on college and university campuses also prompted a series of heated debates.
Then there was the kerfuffle over the anti-Muslim display that led to several angry exchanges among lawmakers and the subsequent debate over whether Delegate Mike Caputo (D-Marion) should be disciplined for forcing open the House Chamber door that struck a doorkeeper.
Earlier in the session, freshman House member Eric Porterfield (R-Mercer) set an unhealthy tone for debate when he compared the LGBTQ movement to the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis.
Throughout the two months, and particularly in the closing days, you could hear staff members, lawmakers, lobbyists and Capitol observers all lamenting the tenor of the session. Long-timers wistfully recalled when lawmakers and factions strained to keep their disputes from becoming too personal because they felt compelled to be deferential to legislative process and the decorum of the body.
It is apparent that the state’s political dialog has changed. The just-ended session seemed more like the politics of Washington than West Virginia, as a growing number of individual lawmakers put their personal agendas on display.
Perhaps those individuals would argue they were sent to Charleston for that purpose, that their election was the mandate they needed to bloviate about their views endlessly and forego comity for chaos. The altruistic greater good is secondary to the piety of a lost or fringe cause.
If that is the case — and I expect it is — then the just-completed session is not an outlier; this is the new normal. Consensus building is still possible, but it will be more difficult as an increasing number of politicians carve out very public positions on issues from which they are unlikely or unwilling to retreat.
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Get ready for the upcoming statewide debate on education “betterment.”
Gov. Jim Justice said that after the regular session, lawmakers can “go out and listen to teachers, parents, community leaders, and all those with a vested interest in making education better in West Virginia.”
The state Department of Education has announced plans to host a series of seven public forums in coming weeks to discuss education reform. House Speaker Roger Hanshaw (R-Roane) said delegates also plan to have meetings with teachers, parents, students and others about education reform.
It’s expected that later in the spring, lawmakers will return to Charleston for a special session to put into a bill what they have heard from the stakeholders that will “focus on education betterment in West Virginia.”
The word here — betterment — is meaningful to this debate, and I don’t think it was chosen by accident.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, the point man for the failed Senate Bill 451, called the legislation “comprehensive education reform.” The teacher unions preferred to identify the measure, which they strongly opposed, as the “omnibus bill.” That’s a generic term that also served the union’s purpose of arguing that the pay raise was being unfairly grouped with other measures.
Apparently Justice did not want to start the new education bill debate by being associated with either side, so we have betterment, which is defined as improvement or advancement.
Okay, it’s just a word, but the parsing of the language is an indicator of just how difficult it’s going to be to get all the stakeholders to agree on what constitutes education reform.
Sorry … I mean betterment.
Justice is in a tough spot. Last fall, he promised a five percent pay raise for teachers and service workers starting July 1, 2019. Senate Republican leaders endorsed the idea. However, when the session began they rolled the pay raise into a larger bill — the now-infamous SB 451 — that included charter schools and education savings accounts.
That bill collapsed in the House and that body was willing to adopt just the pay raise and call it a day. However, the majority of the Senate Republican caucus is firmly against a raise without additional changes they believe will improve public education.
Without Senate support, the pay raise was going to die this session, meaning Justice would have the embarrassment of failing to deliver on his promise even though he is of the same Republican Party as the majority of the Senate and the House.
Justice’s call for a special session is smart tactically. It gives him, and lawmakers, more time to develop an education plan that everyone can agree to. “I know our legislators, education community, and the people of West Virginia want our education system to be better and believe that our employees deserve a raise, so you have my word that we will get it done,” Justice said in a news release Wednesday night.
Frankly, Justice was late to the party this session in trying to broker a deal among the House, Senate and the stakeholders on the education bill. If there is going to be “betterment” in education—a plan that addresses the chronic underachievement of too many of our public schools, while also raising the salaries of our professional educators — Justice needs to take the lead.
Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.