On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, lawmakers convened for the sixth day of the 60-day regular session. That’s right — it’s 10% over already. Below, an update on some transparency issues which could affect the Legislature’s actions for the rest of the session and a few quick stats on lawmaker demographics. But first, a look at MLK Day in the Legislature.
Lobbying for change as MLK’s legacy
As lawmakers began their first full week of business in the Capitol, a small group of activists, legislators, and policy experts joined the West Virginia NAACP to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. with a day of advocacy.
Speakers outlined a range of disparities Black West Virginians face, which contribute to fewer economic opportunities, poorer health, lower educational attainment and higher incarceration rates.
For Del. Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia and the vice-chair of the state Democratic party, the current legislative session presents an opportunity to work on these issues as well as pass anti-discrimination measures like the CROWN Act and the Fairness Act.
“We need to make sure that persons of color, veterans and women have an equal playing field just like anyone else,” she said.
The advocates say this would take more state and federal investment in some areas. But upstairs, another group was lobbying to reduce federal power and spending. The Convention of States Action, a group asking states to amend the U.S. Constitution, saw success here last year when West Virginia delegates and senators passed a resolution championing calling for a new U.S. Constitutional Convention.
“It’s not the government’s job to provide services for the people,” said Brad Friend, a Preston County volunteer with CSA. “It’s to protect our rights.”
The Rev. James Patterson, the Partnership for African American Churches executive director, views the Legislature’s responsibilities differently. He wants state lawmakers to invest in health centers that establish trust with people of color, and he doesn’t think he or the other advocates are asking for much.
“I’m not trying to make a name, I’m not trying to build an empire,” he said. “All I’m trying to do is keep Black babies from dying.” —P.R. Lockhart and Allen Siegler
Legislative tactics limit discussion of bills
The first day of the Legislative session saw new-ish tactics in both the House and the Senate to limit discussion on pending legislation, including one change that could limit discussion and debate of bills in the House all session long.
The Senate passed 23 bills on its first day, including bills to curtail the governor’s power, increase PEIA’s hospital reimbursement, allow retired municipal fire marshals to keep their service weapons, limit some discussions on racism and sexism in classrooms and split up the Department of Health and Human Resources. In all but four cases, all 34 senators, including all three Democrats, voted unanimously to suspend the constitutional requirement and fast track the bill to passage. As the Gazette-Mail’s Mike Tony noted on Friday, the West Virginia Constitution requires bills to be “fully and distinctly read” on three consecutive days unless “in case of urgency” four-fifths of the members vote to bypass that requirement.
“I believe when you come to work you start on time and you get productive immediately,” Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said on MetroNews Talkline. “We’re passing bills that passed out unanimously last year, or near unanimously, to the House of Delegates and weren’t taken up. So we’re passing those out.”
But this also means the public has less time to weigh in on these measures, because they will skip the committee process and the traditional three days of readings on the Senate floor. Last year, the Senate also passed a flurry of bills on the first day; in the previous decade, no bills passed the chamber on day 1.
In the House of Delegates, a rule change adopted Wednesday means lawmakers can now speak to a bill just once, rather than twice. Republican lawmakers made this change partly to better follow manuals on legislative procedure, said Deputy Chief of Staff and Communications Director Ann Ali. But Democrats argued this would stifle debate on the floor and particularly in committees, where many lawmakers speak multiple times while hammering out the nitty-gritty details of bills.
“What the new rule would do, is to cut off debate, gag debate and allow members to speak one time on any matter … You better be good your first time,” said Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha while introducing an amendment to remove the rule change. “And if someone misrepresents what you said or the impact of what you said as a member, you can’t rebut that.”
Rowe’s attempt to amend the rule change failed overwhelmingly after Republicans argued that lawmakers would still have opportunities to talk about a bill.
“You still have the ability to ask 100, 200, and 300 questions if you so desire. You’ll have that ability,” said Delegate Eric Householder, R-Berkeley. “And . . . if there is a compelling reason, you can ask for unanimous consent to suspend the rules.” —Ellie Heffernan
Where are the women?
Only about 12% of the members of the West Virginia Legislature are women: the lowest percentage of women lawmakers the state has had since 1979, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. There are 16 women in the Legislature: four in the Senate and 12 in the House of Delegates.
While female representation has steadily increased across the country over the previous 30 years, West Virginia has been an exception. In 2022, the percentage of women legislators was the lowest in the nation. (Nevada has the highest percentage of women lawmakers, with 60.3%.) The Legislature had its highest percentage of women between 1990 and 1993 when nearly 21% of the lawmakers were women. West Virginia has never had a female governor. —Dan Lawton