Making it through our first special session of the West Virginia Legislature
Director of Communications and Deputy Chief of Staff for the West Virginia House of Delegates Ann Ali looks something up for West Virginia Watch reporters (from left) Lori Kersey, Amelia Ferrell Knisely and Steven Allen Adams of Ogden Newspapers. (Perry Bennett | West Virginia Legislative Photography)
Well, we did it — we survived our first legislative interim and special session.
And it was within a month of our launch.
The Monday before interims, we tried to determine who wanted to attend what sessions, which was just a guessing game since the agendas weren’t made available until later in the week.
We also knew that a special session seemed inevitable — but when would it be called? Wednesday? Thursday? Friday? No. It was called on Sunday, 30 minutes before it was to start.
I guess Gov. Jim Justice was too busy driving Babydog around on his golf cart at the LIV golf tournament the Greenbrier was hosting to send the proclamation out earlier.
Lol we’re all anxiously waiting to see if Justice will issue the proclamation for a special session to start TONIGHT and he’s…. at the Greenbrier https://t.co/FtuMWJ5Egw
— Caity (@caitycoyne) August 6, 2023
Longtime Statehouse reporter Phil Kabler said on Twitter that traditionally governors will provide a special session call three days in advance at the start of the session to allow legislators, the media and public an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the agenda.
“Complete lack of transparency,” Kabler posted.
That allowed not only legislators, but also the media and public, an opportunity to get up to speed on the agenda.
Today, Justice issued a bloated, 44-item call 32 minutes before the start of the session.
Complete lack of transparency.
— Phil Kabler (@PhilKabler) August 7, 2023
It’s not a great look. Kind of like suspending the rules to pass a bunch of bills on the first day of session — oh wait, that did happen again.
According to the Senate and House rules, all bills shall be read on three different days, “unless in case of urgency, by four-fifths vote of the members present taken by yeas and nays, on each bill, this rule shall be dispensed with.”
When you have a supermajority, as the Republicans do, it’s easy to get that four-fifths majority so you can suspend the rules on every bill to ram them through.
This really doesn’t give the people of West Virginia much of a chance to give any input on bills. Of course, the Legislature is really just saving everyone’s time because they’ve proven they don’t care about what the public has to say.
So let’s take a look at some highlights and lowlights — this thing was a certified Big ‘Ol Mess.
House Democrats elected Del. Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, as their minority leader. Hornbuckle made history as he is the first Black man to take on that role.
Taking a look at bills Hornbuckle was the lead sponsor on shows that he wants to help people, and move the state forward in a positive direction — amending the state Constitution to allow for possession, manufacture and sale of cannabis; providing tax credits for young adults paying off college debt or for child care; and granting full time employees of county boards of education three months of paid leave following the birth of a child. These are the kinds of positive things that can actually help West Virginia keep more people here and attract others to move here. Unfortunately, none of these bills made it past the “filed for introduction” phase.
Lawmakers approved bills that will allocate about $12 million to help fund volunteer firefighters. Unfortunately, no funding was given to EMS agencies. Before the special session began, more than 200 first responder agencies sent a letter to Justice asking him to add funding measures for fire departments and EMS services. The West Virginia EMS Coalition Board of Directors released a statement following the funding of fire departments that the “EMS community is dismayed that Gov. Justice has refused to answer our call for help during the ongoing special session.” The statement continued that the board was “disappointed the governor would aid fire departments with surplus funds pending a permanent solution while ignoring the equally significant needs of EMS.”
The Senate and the House of Delegates passed a bill appropriating $45 million to Marshall University for a new cyber security program. This is great for Marshall and the city of Huntington. But isn’t it strange that it’s exactly $45 million? Where have I seen that number before? Oh yes, West Virginia University’s $45 million budget shortfall. The one that’s causing the university to combine programs, and cut entire programs and fire staff, and basically destroy the university.
Lawmakers approved allocating $1 million to the Department of Homeland Security for the West Virginia State Police to fund security cameras and updated locking systems for the State Police Academy. Yes, the State Police Academy where a man allegedly recorded footage of the women’s locker room with a hidden camera. Are these security cameras meant to prevent that from happening again? Or to prevent people from allegedly destroying the footage?
One of the main reasons Justice called the special session was to address funding for the Department of Corrections. The state’s jails have a 30% employee vacancy rate, and some of those positions are temporarily being filled by the National Guard — and the jails’ cooks and therapists too — in order to keep the jails operating.
Many bills related to the jails crisis passed, and will head to the governor now. Senate Bill 1005 would give the department $2.1 million to increase the starting pay for correctional officers, Senate Bill 1003 and Senate Bill 1004 provide around $6 million for bonuses to non-uniformed employees, such as cooks and therapists.
In total, 35 out of 44 of Justice’s bills passed.
Meetings were canceled, they were moved around, they started late, and there were shenanigans left and right.
Thank goodness for directors of communications Ann Ali and Jacque Bland for getting our reporters where they needed to be, keeping them updated and clarifying things.
By Tuesday, this was all of us:
My current state of mind in the press room: pic.twitter.com/HXuDk4T2q2
— Caity (@caitycoyne) August 8, 2023
I’ll be honest, that was also me Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Actually, Saturday too.
Let’s say we take a month off and do it again Sept. 10-12.
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