MADISON – Jim Butcher greeted the Boone-Madison librarians as he checked out his fifth book in two days. The four he picked up the previous day were for pleasure, but the one today was research: a theological book he hoped would inform his sermons at Madison Baptist, where he’s a pastor.
Between his job, his avid reading and his four children who have attended Boone County schools, Butcher understands how important the small library is to his community.
“Especially for high school and middle school students whose families may not be able to afford to drop $200 a month on several books, I just think it’s a great resource,” Butcher said.
The library offers free WiFi, an invaluable resource for students and remote workers. They also have children’s programs, and it’s still one of the only places in the community for people to print or fax documents and use public computers.
But Butcher is concerned that the library’s already-meager funding could be in danger. One of four proposed constitutional amendments on the general election ballot could allow the Legislature to slash taxes that go directly to counties. In the case of Boone County, those taxes made up nearly half of the libraries’ $226,000 annual budget last year, and also support services like ambulance systems, schools and the local fire department.
In total, there are four constitutional amendments on this year’s election ballot. One would allow churches to incorporate. The other three would allow the Legislature broader authority to dictate statewide school policies, set and change taxes like the ones that fund Boone County’s library, and impeach elected officials with more impunity. Supporters of the amendments say the measures would give the appropriate level of authority to the representatives directly elected by West Virginians. But while it isn’t unusual for any of the three branches of state government to vie for more authority over the others, all three of the amendments would grant a single branch — the Legislature — new powers if passed.
“I think that’s the clear theme,” said West Virginia University professor Bob Bastress about the amendments on the ballot this year. “Three of the four, at least, are assertions of legislative power.”
The power of impeachment without judicial oversight
While it’s received much less public debate over the past few months, Bastress is “particularly concerned” about the first proposed amendment that will be on November’s ballot.
The “Clarification of the Judiciary’s role in Impeachment Proceedings Amendment” would strip the judicial branch of its oversight role in political impeachments.
The proposed amendment was crafted after the 2018 impeachment of all of the state’s Supreme Court justices; an investigation found justices were using public vehicles for personal commuting and excessively spending public money, including on a $32,000 couch for then-Chief Justice Allen Loughry.
While impeachments have been rare throughout West Virginia’s history, Bastress believes that the 2018 impeachment shows the potential for the process to be abused by legislatures for political reasons.
“Two justices clearly earned impeachment, and I think that was constitutional,” Bastress said. “But the Legislature impeached all of them, and for three justices there was no basis. None. The impeachment process was essentially used as a hammer.”
One of the three justices Bastress feels was unjustly impeached was Margaret Workman. Workman fought her impeachment in the state’s court, and the judiciary sided with her, effectively halting impeachment proceedings against her.
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House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, however, has cited the same case as justification for the amendment’s passage.
He told the Herald-Dispatch last week that the Workman decision was “ the worst case ever decided by our Court … Amendment One is designed to rectify that situation to make sure that representatives actually have the authority that the Constitution says they have.”
Others, like Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Trump, R-Morgan, have argued the judiciary’s check on impeachment is not explicitly laid out in the state constitution, and in Workman’s case, the judiciary itself intervened in the impeachment of one of its most powerful judges. The proposed change, Trump has argued, would bring the state in line with the federal impeachment process, where Congress has sole authority, and the process is driven by political will.
Even if the amendment passes, however, the Legislature would still require a House vote to bring impeachment charges, and then a two-thirds vote in the Senate to remove an elected official from office.
The power to dictate public school curriculum and other policies
Lawmakers are already able to pass laws governing school policies through the typical legislative process. But if voters approve the “Education Accountability Amendment” it would give a smaller handful of these lawmakers a different way to affect rules that are currently set by the state Department of Education or the schools themselves, though the whole body would have to approve them.
As it stands, West Virginia’s Board of Education, which comprises nine members appointed by the governor to overlapping nine year terms, sets rules for the state’s schools not dictated or covered by existing legislation. This includes policies around required curriculum and discipline that directly impact K-12 students every day.
Lawmakers who favor the amendment say it will subject the state’s public schools, which have increasingly become the battleground for public political fights, to increased accountability. As they see it, lawmakers are elected by their constituents to represent their interests, and the more of a hand they have in the process, the closer citizens’ voices are to the decision-making table.
“In the case of Amendment Four, a yes vote is a vote for members of the Legislature — who are elected directly by the people — to have the final say over education policy instead of unelected, appointed bureaucrats who answer to nobody,” said Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, a member of the rulemaking review committee that would be granted power to accept, amend or reject rules created by the Department of Education.
Opponents worry about school policy being controlled by legislators who have repeatedly passed laws siphoning public school funding towards alternative options like charter schools, and came close to passing a contentious bill that would have dictated the ways issues of racism, sexism and bigotry in America could be taught in schools. They argue that the reason for the current system is to help keep the state’s schools apolitical, and to insulate it from the political whims of the statehouse.
“Amendment Four is, in my opinion, a power grab by the Legislature,” said M. Andrew Garber, President of the Ohio County Board of Education. “We are letting the Legislature use politics to control education, and I don’t know that that’s a really good mix.”
While lawmakers already have the power to change school policy via legislation, if Amendment Four passes, lawmakers would have an easier path to do so. They would also be able to make the changes via a process called rulemaking review: one that involves fewer lawmakers and is arguably further from the public eye than bills that are introduced through the more typical legislative process.
That’s a concern for Monongalia County high school teacher Carrie Beatty, who says she has been demoralized by increasingly hostile conversations about how she’s allowed to address sensitive issues in her classroom in a way that’s welcoming to marginalized students.
“I’m worried about the future of public education,” Beatty said. “The one thing that keeps teachers teaching is their passion. If you’re killing that passion, how are we supposed to inspire creativity and motivation and passion in our students when we’ve got nothing left?”
The power to slash some property taxes
Much of the discussion about constitutional amendments has been swallowed by one in particular: Amendment Two, or the “Property Tax Modernization Amendment.”
The amendment would allow the Legislature to cut taxes that are currently set by the state’s constitution, and therefore immovable without amending the state’s founding document.
A vote for the measure would not, in fact, change the property taxes themselves, but would give lawmakers the power to act. Right now, the plan that’s been presented by Senate Republicans would cut a number of property taxes affecting individuals and businesses, but it has faced some opposition.
If the amendment passes, any property tax cut would also have to pass the House of Delegates, where spokesperson Ann Ali said views on tax cuts across the body are diverse. Gov. Jim Justice has also been vocally opposing the measure, touting instead an across-the-board 10% income tax cut and a vehicle tax rebate — both steps lawmakers could take without changing the state constitution.
As it stands, the Senate’s plan would eliminate the vehicle property tax paid annually by all West Virginians who own cars or trucks. Republican Senators also plan to cut several property taxes that largely impact businesses, with the hope of attracting more jobs and companies to the state. These include eliminating both an inventory tax that companies pay on unsold goods, and a machinery tax on heavy equipment.
Collectively, the proposal would amount to a budget cut of more than $500 million, almost all of which currently goes to counties and municipalities. While Senate Republicans say their plan will make up that lost revenue, it relies greatly on the assumption that revenue surpluses from the last two years will continue, even as the billions of federal COVID relief dollars that the state received in that time expire.
Senate spokesperson Jacque Bland pointed to a provision in the proposed legislation touted by senators that would create two backup funds that would be used to keep counties funded in harder times. It’s unclear what would happen if those backup funds were to deplete, though Ali said House leaders will not support a plan that’s not sustainable over the long term.
“There is a reason you don’t build a financial plan in perpetuity based on these last two years,” said Seth DiStefano, the policy outreach director for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.
His organization found that Boone County will be one of the five most impacted counties by the potential cuts, measured by the portion of the county’s revenue made up by the affected taxes collected and excess levies on them voted by citizens. As it stands, those go almost exclusively to counties and municipalities, with roughly 1% going to the state.
Up Route 3 from the Boone-Madison Library, Chief Nick Bratcher is worried about the effect any budget cut could have on the Racine Volunteer Fire Department.
“I’ve been against this since I first heard about it,” Bratcher said. “The way they’re pushing it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,”
This year, Racine’s volunteer firefighters have answered over 200 calls for fires and other emergencies like downed trees and car wrecks. While none of the volunteer firefighters are paid a salary, Bratcher says every dollar of his budget is necessary for maintaining fire trucks and protective equipment. It’s also what keeps Boone County’s various fire departments from being consolidated, and able to reach every part of the county quickly.
In the county, local residents and county commissioners have come out against the amendment and the Senate’s proposed tax cuts. For Bratcher, it’s a question of who should be making decisions about local spending.
“The local people need to keep the local power,” Bratcher said.
This has been a selling point for opponents of all three of these amendments, including those related to education policy and impeachment. That includes DiStefano, who Bratcher invited to speak against Amendment Two and answer questions about the others for residents at the Racine Volunteer Firehouse.
It is also a motivating factor behind the support for these amendments, including lawmakers who stand to gain new authority, and see their legislative bodies as most accountable to West Virginians.
“The Legislature is the representative body of the people,” Bland, the Senate spokesperson said. “All three amendments, on their own, do not change the current operation of government. However, they allow change if and when warranted.”
The question voters will decide is whether changing the distribution of power will be what’s best for their communities.