Sen. President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, looks at a piece of paper during discussion of a bill about the state's health insurance agency. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography

Today, 134 lawmakers gathered in Charleston for the first official meeting of the 86th West Virginia Legislature. Below, more on bill introduction, Senate President Craig Blair’s opening statement, quick moves on PEIA and what to expect in a couple of hours from Gov. Jim Justice’s State of the State address.

Quick action on PEIA

The Public Employees Insurance Agency or PEIA — which currently covers thousands of public employees in the state — is facing a serious financial crisis and declining quality of care. It’s unclear if legislators will ultimately dedicate permanent funding to PEIA (an action advocates say will be necessary to keep it alive) but in a sign of urgency, one of the first bills passed by the Senate on Wednesday focused on increasing the program’s hospital reimbursement rate. The issue was thrown into the spotlight last week after Wheeling Hospital announced that it would stop accepting PEIA insurance in July, saying that the current low rate of reimbursement made it difficult to continue to accept the state’s employee insurance. 

The bill, SB 127, is an updated version of legislation that passed out of the Senate last year, but failed to clear the House of Delegates. In discussions before the vote, several senators noted that after years of legislative inaction, finding a permanent fix will be a priority during the session. P.R. Lockhart

An opening salvo from Senate President Blair

Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, during the swearing in ceremony for a new member on Tuesday.

The past few months have been marked by legislative leaders openly clashing with Gov. Jim Justice over a proposed constitutional amendment to cut certain property taxes. The measure was supported by House and Senate Republican leaders, but opposed by Justice, who traveled around the state campaigning against Amendment 2 and railing against Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley.

In his opening remarks to the full Senate, Blair suggested he hadn’t forgotten Justice’s insults. 

“Over the last year, we’ve been called ‘the swamp.’ We’re anything but,” Blair said, referencing a remark Justice made during the governor’s successful campaign against Amendment 2. “And I’ve taken a lot of exception to that statement. Do not believe a word of that.”

Shortly after, the Senate passed two bills that curtail Justice’s powers, one that would require the governor to get legislative approval to extend a state of emergency past 60 days, as well as a bill that would limit how much federal money the governor can spend without legislative input. 

During debate, numerous senators criticized Justice’s actions during the pandemic, particularly his spending of federal funds, arguing that the Legislature needs to be more of a check on the governor. 

But as the debate came to a close, Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, argued that the predominantly Republican Senate was being too hasty — and deeply personal — in their move to limit executive power. 

“This does feel like a punch in the mouth at our particular governor that’s seated downstairs,” Woelfel said. “I just don’t see the reason for speed on this. Any time we make a move that is reactive to a particular person which this appears to be, could be, I think we make an error.” — P.R. Lockhart

Bills, bills, bills

From left: House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, Minority Chair Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, and Del. David Kelly, R-Tyler, during new member orientation in the West Virginia House of Delegates on Tuesday. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

It’s the first day of session, and that means a flurry of bills are being introduced. As of writing this, we’re at 635. The good or bad news (depending on your perspective) is that most won’t go anywhere. Only a fraction will ever see a vote, and even fewer become law. In the last regular session, just over 10% of the 2,216 introduced pieces of legislation made it all the way through the process and became law.

There are a few ways to guess which will make it. One is that the deck is stacked in favor of bills that the House Speaker, Senate President, or major committee chairs have called priorities. 

Then there are also the bills that have early momentum behind them. The Senate passed 23 bills right off the bat, suspending the constitutional rules that require they be read on three separate days. Those included the three mentioned above, as well as a bill splitting the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources into three and a bill that limits how teachers can address topics like racism or sexism. –Ian Karbal

Go deeper: From an ‘idea on a napkin’ to law: Where do bills come from at the West Virginia Legislature?

Justice to speak tonight. What’s on the menu? 

Gov. Jim Justice and his English bulldog, Babydog, near the conclusion of his 2022 State of the State address on Jan. 27. 2022. Photo courtesy Governor’s Office.

Gov. Justice is set to give his seventh State of the State address in the House of Delegates chamber tonight.

How to watch: Justice’s speech starts at 7:00 p.m. and will be broadcast live on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Stream it here.

What exactly Justice will talk about is still a mystery, but we can make a few educated guesses. For one, the governor is something of a showman, and he’s relied on visual props in previous State of the State addresses. Two years ago, he brought a large sign with “#1” printed on the state outline to demonstrate where he saw West Virginia’s place in the nation. Last year, he presented his English bulldog’s rear end to the crowd, exhorting haters to kiss it. 

Besides props, tax cuts are likely to be a major focus of Justice’s speech. Last week he said that he would use the State of the State to announce the “biggest tax cuts in the history of the state hands down,” and he has repeatedly argued that West Virginia’s budget surplus paves the way to return money to taxpayers and businesses in the state. Two ideas that he could keep pushing: a plan to cut personal income taxes by 10% before phasing them out entirely, and a vehicle tax rebate.

However, one thing that isn’t clear is how much of Justice’s plans will actually be supported by the Legislature. There’s still some bad blood between Justice and some legislative Republicans, particularly Blair (see above). Any of Justice’s proposals will need buy-in from both legislative bodies, and it’s entirely possible that the House and Senate go in a different direction when it comes to tax reform.  –P.R. Lockhart

P.R. Lockhart is Mountain State Spotlight's Economic Development Reporter.

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.