An empty gallery in the House chamber in February 2021. Photo by Erin Beck.

In a typical legislative session, the halls of the West Virginia Capitol are arteries pulsing with activity, incurring occasional clogs as people congregate in a flurry of rustling papers and echoing voices. 

This year’s session is anything but typical.

Between the end of last year’s session in March and the start of the new one on Feb. 10, COVID-19 killed 2,175 West Virginians and infected nearly 126,000. Now, more than ever, as citizens deal with the health and financial effects of the pandemic, access to lawmakers and transparency about the legislative process is crucial. But while the West Virginia Legislature has limited in-person access to the Capitol, officials haven’t made adequate corresponding moves to increase virtual access, leaving some frustrated and feeling left out of the process.  

During a typical year, constituents can sit in on committee meetings, approach lawmakers in the hallways and observe Senate and House proceedings from the galleries. But this year, official protocol requires members of the public to reach out and schedule an appointment with lawmakers to enter the Capitol — though there’s no information about that on the Legislature citizen’s guide page, and there is no centralized appointment system. 

Restrictions extend to in-person attendance at legislative proceedings, too. Technology could have helped overcome some of the barriers by letting West Virginians — at least those with broadband access — watch the government proceedings virtually.

But there’s a large discrepancy between the House and the Senate in how easy that is for the public to do.

While the Senate offers video and audio broadcasting for both floor sessions — conducted daily by the House and Senate’s entire bodies — and committee meetings, the House only offers audio for the committee meetings. Spokeswoman Ann Ali said that’s because none of the House’s committee rooms have video broadcasting capabilities. And when committees meet in the House Chamber — where floor sessions are broadcast with both audio and video — Ali said they don’t stream video to remain consistent. 

That’s frustrating for Logan Riffey, a sophomore at West Virginia University from Berkeley Springs and the legislative affairs officer for the university’s Student Government Association. Also an issue for him: unlike the Senate, the House livestreams, but doesn’t archive, its meetings. 

“Oftentimes, with me having class, I can’t tune into committee meetings too often,” Riffey said. “It would be really nice if those were archived so I could come back to them later. Especially when there’s something controversial.”

Riffey isn’t the only person to have this concern. In fact, the entire West Virginia Democratic House caucus sent House Speaker Roger Hanshaw a letter dated Feb. 13 urging him to video stream all committees and archive House proceedings. 

“They knew they were going to have this situation where we’re only meeting in two committee rooms. Why wouldn’t they make sure the capabilities were there?” said House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, in an interview. “During this pandemic, literally from our students to virtually every business under the sun has figured out how to do video conferencing.”

Hanshaw, R-Clay, did not respond to an interview request by publication.

The House of Delegates did make COVID-related technology improvements before the session: for example, by spending CARES Act money to upgrade the voting board. This allows House members to vote while sitting up in the galleries away from the other congregated delegates if they wish, Ali said.

In late January, 40 organizations sent a letter to legislative leadership urging both chambers to have an open and transparent process. The letter included suggested measures for the virtual platforms and public hearings. Concerns over both of these areas remain. 

Public hearings

Access to House proceedings is not the only concern that has surfaced this legislative session — so has concern about some of the usual proceedings not happening at all. 

The House traditionally holds public hearings when requested on topics under consideration to hear input from West Virginians. Ali said January changes by the House to House Rule 84 made these public hearings virtual and gave committee chairs more discretion on whether to have them at all. 

So far this session, there have been none. But there have been requests. 

Earlier this month, during a House Government Organization Committee meeting, Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, requested a public hearing on House Bill 2007, which would allow people to move to and work in West Virginia with an occupational license from another state. Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, the committee chairman and a sponsor of the bill, denied the request.

“I bet that if we were to have a public hearing, we would hear opinions and technical expertise from people from many different professions,” Hansen said. 

Steele noted the Senate doesn’t have public hearings and that in-person hearings would present public safety concerns. As for virtual hearings, despite them being specifically approved in the rule change, Steele indicated he didn’t think they were an option.

“We have different things all the time where people call in virtually and talk to us and what not, and different things,” he said. “But as far as having people testify and stuff, there’s not really a way to have them under oath and things like that to do it. So that’s been one of the problems.”

Oaths aren’t required during public hearings. Ali said while she hadn’t talked to Steele one-on-one about the matter, the House does have the ability to conduct virtual public hearings, though conducting even those could present health risks, such as having extra people in the room to facilitate the hearing.

Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, said he had valued the House’s public hearings in previous years, which allowed him to hear  public viewpoints on controversial bills. 

“That’s a real loss,” he said. “That’s why I’m trying to do Zoom and Facebook Lives and virtual events like that with folks back home to try and break the bubble.” 

Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said the West Virginia Environmental Coalition has submitted a public hearing request to the House Judiciary Committee for House Bill 2389 and is awaiting a response. She is concerned about what the legislation could mean for water quality, as well as how the House is handling public hearings.

“We’re eager to get a response on our public hearing request, because that’ll be another signal to us whether or not they are making efforts to make sure the public has access and is included in the process,” she said. 

House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, says the changes this session are difficult for elected officials too, and delegates are doing the best they can to be accessible to constituents during the pandemic. 

“Now, if some of them have come to the Capitol in the past to have a public hearing, they could still call me, we could discuss their concerns, they could send me that in length in an email,” she said.

But in WVU student Riffey’s experience, that way of communication hasn’t been effective. He said he emailed several other legislators — not Summers — before the session with questions and concerns he had with plans to get rid of the state income tax. He didn’t get any responses. 

“I just feel there’s a really big disconnect,” said Riffey, who, despite his student government position, sent the emails in a personal capacity. “If they respond, then there’s a bridge and we can communicate, perhaps see eye-to-eye, but when they don’t respond, there’s a disconnect, a barrier.”

Erin Beck contributed to this story.

Douglas Soule is a Report for America corps member who covers business and economic development. A Bridgeport native, he worked as an intern at the Charleston Gazette-Mail. He has served as editor-in-chief...