This year’s session of the West Virginia Legislature largely lacked a cohesive theme. The last 60 days were packed with inter- and intra-party conflict, last-minute reversals on policies, and a host of bills that took up hours of lawmakers’ time, sucking the air out of the room and killing space for other debates.
But a number of the more transformative and high-profile bills paint a complicated picture of a Republican Party, with an overwhelming majority zigzagging between the rollback of oversight in some areas, and cracking down on public and private entities in another.
Republicans attempted to pass many laws that would make it harder for West Virginians to hold the state and businesses accountable for harm, though some of the most high-profile measures hit roadblocks and died in the final days of the session. Lawmakers resisted attempts to shine more light into the working of state government; they passed bills to block the release of records from jails and prisons, and shot down attempts to stream videos of their public meetings.
At the same time, lawmakers showed they were fine with increasing oversight and restrictions over certain aspects of West Virginians’ lives, especially when it came to party priorities. They passed a bill that would ban abortions in the case of certain fetal anomalies. And while they got the votes on a bill that would have restricted conversations about race in classes, the tally happened mere moments after midnight, and was declared null by the clerk. A vote to ban cities and counties from outlawing conversion therapy for gay and transgender West Virginians was similarly stymied by a crowded final days’ House calendar and multiple hours-long debates on contentious bills, including a budget that received bipartisan criticism for being crafted without transparency.
Sometimes lawmakers’ motivations on these measures were clear, through comments they made in committee meetings or on their chamber’s floor. But a number of lawmakers refused to answer reporters’ questions about bills and initiatives that they sponsored or supported.
The decisions made by lawmakers will have profound impacts on the state’s citizens, and their relationship with the government that exists, in part, to enforce laws and ensure that basic needs of every West Virginian are met. And almost every feature of the government will be affected by a decision this session to increase or decrease oversight.
Here are some key takeaways, with a focus on where transparency and oversight were stripped and added.
For the last few years, broadband internet has been one of lawmakers’ stated priorities. That continued this year, especially with an influx of federal cash to expand the service throughout West Virginia.
Hoping to avoid previous mistakes, the first bill introduced in the House was meant to increase accountability over how those federal funds are used.
But lawmakers in the House Finance Committee stripped a key provision that would have created a legislative oversight commission to keep track of the Department of Economic Development’s spending of hundreds of millions of dollars.
The bill ultimately passed, and despite objections from Economic Development Secretary Mitch Carmichael, still includes a major accountability provision that lets the state deny broadband companies’ certification for federal funding, if the companies don’t provide the services they promise.
COVID-19 and health
Fewer West Virginians have been sick and in the hospital with COVID-19 in recent weeks, but that wasn’t always the case this session. While nurses and doctors were grappling with record infections, deaths and hospitalizations, lawmakers were introducing and debating bills that could make the pandemic worse by tying the hands of schools, businesses and hospitals to enact public health measures.
Of the dozen or so COVID-19 bills that were introduced this session, only one ultimately passed. The bill would prohibit government entities, universities and hospitals from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination to enter buildings on their premises.
Although lawmakers only passed one bill spurred by anti-COVID response sentiment, the fervor surrounding the bills throughout the last 60 days left little room for legislation to help hospitals, nurses, emergency responders and other health care workers recover from the stresses of the last two years.
Other bills that made it through one chamber but were ultimately unsuccessful would have mandated that private employers who require vaccinations also accept evidence of “natural immunity,” as well as prevented county school boards from requiring masks in schools or quarantining students exposed to the virus, regardless of the transmission rate in counties.
After the pandemic revealed shortfalls in support and funding of emergency management systems across the state, lawmakers pushed an effort to move the Office of Emergency Management Systems from the Department of Health and Human Resources to the executive branch. EMS workers hoped the move would give them better access to the governor, who has final approval over the budget. However, a standalone bill making this change didn’t advance, and on the final day of the session, a similar provision was removed from a bill that would divide DHHR into two bodies.
DHHR is a massive state agency, tasked with administering or overseeing a wide swath of programs ranging from Medicaid to foster care. For the last year, including fall and winter interims, lawmakers have grilled DHHR officials about tragedies that have happened under the agency’s purview, like abuses in group homes.
This session, lawmakers seemed to conclude that the size of DHHR is part of the problem. In response, they pushed through a bill that will split DHHR into two separate departments, despite DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch testifying several times that the agency is uncertain how the breakup could impact federal funding or future performance. A few lawmakers proposed a study to examine how the split should happen. But in the end, supporters of the bill had their way, and if Gov. Jim Justice signs the bill, the agency will split into the Department of Health and the Department of Human Resources in July 2023.
The other major bill affecting DHHR also died on the final night, but not before being gutted by lawmakers.
Following Mountain State Spotlight reporting uncovering a pattern of neglect and abuse in foster care homes, a bipartisan group of lawmakers formed a caucus with the express aim of addressing the problem. As the session went on, a single bill was introduced and advanced that would have provided oversight and transparency of the foster care system, to ensure such problems could be addressed in the future.
But in the final days of the session, Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee stripped the bill of many of its key provisions, including raises for social workers meant to help fill vacancies and a public website that would have pushed the agency to be more transparent about foster care numbers. They also removed a provision that would have required DHHR to create a data dashboard showing the number of foster parents around the state and data trends in child welfare. DHHR leaders expressed support for the data dashboard during the session, but noted it would be difficult to get up and running.
Both the House and the Senate passed versions of the bill, but the House didn’t concur with the Senate’s significant changes before the session ended.
Within the first three weeks of the session, lawmakers had repealed the state’s long-standing ban on nuclear energy.
The deregulation of nuclear energy presents both an opportunity and a potential threat to safety for West Virginians, and much of the debate around the bill was centered on its lack of oversight provisions over future nuclear plants, though proponents pointed out that the bill is just a start.
But in other energy bills, the government is increasing its role in otherwise private industries. A successful bill pushed by State Treasurer Riley Moore would allow the state to disinvest from banks that boycott fossil fuels. Yet another would create a state-funded private company that will help coal companies obtain mine reclamation bonds, which many insurers see as an increasingly risky venture.
In an effort that picked up steam during the last few days of the session, lawmakers also passed a bill that will make it easier for gas companies to extract resources from beneath landowners’ property — even without their consent. The move will strip certain West Virginians of autonomy over their own land.
Failed attempts at limiting workers’ rights
Not all efforts to decrease oversight and accountability were successful. Most notable were the efforts to strip workers’ abilities to hold their employers to account for treatment in the workplace.
In a rare floor vote where a Republican-led bill failed on a final reading, on the penultimate day of the session delegates rejected a bill that would have allowed the state government to charge its employees up to $1,000 if they brought an unsuccessful grievance case.
Another bill that died would have prevented employees from suing companies for any amounts beyond their workers’ compensation payments, even if the employee was hurt or killed by corporate negligence or malpractice. At a public hearing, severely disabled miners, and the families of miners killed in accidents, spoke at length against the bill. One timber company, Allegheny Wood, hired newly-resigned state Supreme Court justice Evan Jenkins to lobby lawmakers to pass the bill — a move that skirted ethics laws prohibiting certain government officials, including Supreme Court judges, from lobbying for a year after they leave office.
And despite changes to the state’s unemployment benefits being a stated priority of Senate President Craig Blair before the legislative session, two related bills failed to make it across the threshold. One of the measures would have decreased the number of weeks West Virginians could file for unemployment benefits, and tie that duration to the state’s unemployment rate — a move experts said would have hurt many. The other would have required people who are getting unemployment to complete at least four tasks a week relating to their job search.
In education policy, Republican lawmakers made clear where they would like to see more restrictions and oversight, rather than less.
The bill that saw maybe the longest debate in both committees and on the floor was a bill that would limit how K-12 teachers can discuss racism in their classrooms. Along with restricting discussions, the bill would have created a reporting mechanism for complaints of violations, which could be sent to the state schools superintendent, and to the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability. Republican lawmakers of both chambers showed they favored the measure, but senators missed their midnight deadline to pass it by mere minutes, so the bill will not become a law this year.
As that curriculum debate raged loudly, lawmakers more quietly voted to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that, if passed, would give them the final say over all Board of Education policy, including curriculum decisions. Currently, the state Board of Education is one of the few government entities exempt from the rule-making review process.
Lawmakers also passed stricter policies aimed at catching and punishing people who abuse disabled children, introduced in response to the alleged abuse of special needs students in several West Virginia schools. One of these bills would require schools to keep already-mandated video recordings of special education classes longer, and require the frequent review of those videos. Another would elevate what would otherwise be misdemeanor penalties, such as verbal abuse, battery, and failure to report abuse, to felonies when pertaining to behavior aimed at disabled kids.
Although, a few bills that lawmakers passed on the final day also decreased accountability in school systems. One would allow teachers and county school board members, among others, to bid on contracts with their employers. Opponents of the bill say it opens the door to corruption, and in cases where an employee or board member would be the only person in the county able to provide such a service, the state Ethics Commission has already allowed for exemptions from the current ban.
Another new bill that passed will allow for the creation of micro-schools, groups of homeschooled students being taught under the same roof. But the Senate took out a measure in the bill that would have capped these schools at 100 students, and rejected an amendment that would have ensured any building where such schooling takes place meets safety requirements.
Where oversight increased
Besides in education policy, West Virginia legislators attempted to increase oversight in several other areas.
Though stripped back, the central broadband bill of the session does maintain increased oversight of companies providing internet services.
But in many cases, demands for increased accountability applied to people like health care providers and local government officials from doing things that run counter to Republican Party platforms.
Two of the more controversial bills that would have increased restrictions on West Virginians failed after lengthy debates on the final day. A bill that would have banned cities and counties from putting regulations on local businesses, such as enacting non-discrimination laws, raising the minimum wage or banning conversion therapy — a practice that the American Psychiatric Association says has caused “documented harm” — failed to make it through a crowded final day of votes in the House. And just seconds after midnight, a vote on the so-called anti-racism act received the necessary votes, but was declared null because the session had technically ended.
And while a bill to outlaw abortions more than 15 weeks of gestation failed to pass, lawmakers did approve another bill that would prohibit the procedure if performed because the fetus might have a disability. These bills were all aimed at pressure points in a culture war, which fighting has become a central tenet of the Republican Party, and received significant support. And hours of debate on them in the final days of the session stymied passage of a host of bipartisan bills on the agenda, which failed to move when the clock ran out.
Correction: A previous version of this story indicated delegates missed the midnight deadline to vote on a bill banning certain conversations about race in classrooms. It was actually senators who voted too late. There was also a reference to a bill that incorrectly stated it would affect mining companies; it actually would affect oil and gas companies.