The Senate in session last week. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

We’re over halfway through the session and things are going to speed up. One term that often comes with that is “rule suspension.” Here’s what that actually means. 

What does it mean when the Legislature suspends rules?

Floor sessions in the House of Delegates and Senate are guided by a set of broad rules laid out in the West Virginia Constitution and specific rules of the House and Senate fill in the gaps. 

Just about every day, some rules are suspended. Usually, it’s a normal part of the process that simply saves time. But sometimes, rule suspensions garner criticism for fast-tracking controversial bills.

With the second half of the session fast-approaching, things are almost sure to start speeding up at the Capitol. And often, for things to move faster, rules will have to be suspended. Here’s exactly what that means and how it can happen.

How do rule suspensions work? 

There are two sets of rules that can be suspended: constitutional rules, and the individual House or Senate rules.

Constitutional rules are suspended a lot less frequently, and require a four-fifths vote of members present.

According to House Clerk Steve Harrison, there are limits on what lawmakers can do with that power. No, they can’t suspend any constitutional rule they want to at any time. He said it’s almost exclusively done to avoid the requirement that bills be read three separate times, on three separate days, before they are passed.

The West Virginia Constitution says: “No bill shall become a law until it has been fully and distinctly read, on three different days, in each house, unless in case of urgency, by a vote of four fifths of the members present, taken by yeas and nays on each bill, this rule be dispensed with.”

On the first day of this session, senators voted to suspend constitutional rules to pass nearly two dozen bills that they had already debated and passed the year before. Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, told MetroNews the move allowed the Legislature to hit the ground running on bills that had already been through the legislative process in at least one chamber. 

Democrats in the House criticized the move as reducing transparency. 

That’s not to say constitutional rules are suspended lightly.

“It’s a pretty big deal — a constitutional rules suspension,” said Senate spokesperson Jacque Bland. On the other hand, “a Senate rule suspension, you’re not missing anything there. That’s commonplace.”

Senate and House rules are suspended virtually every day. The Senate or House can suspend one of their own rules with just a two-thirds majority. 

It’s practically a daily ritual during session to skip the full reading of the House and Senate Journals. Technically according to the House and Senate rules, each is supposed to be read in its entirety at the start of each floor session. 

But doing so could add hours to each floor session, and the documents are publicly available online. Almost every lawmaker agrees not to have them read aloud, despite a rule requiring it.

According to House spokesperson Ann Ali, these suspensions are also done “to speed up the legislative process.”

Another suspension of rules that happens near-daily allows bills to be explained instead of read in their entirety. Bills are long and full of legalese. A member can often explain a bill much faster.

What does that mean for a massive supermajority?

Republicans hold 88 of 100 seats in the House and 31 of 34 seats in the Senate. This makes suspending rules rather easy — if they can agree on the need to do so. Whether by a four-fifths vote to suspend a constitutional rule, or a two-thirds vote to suspend the rules of their chamber, both House and Senate Republicans have the votes to do so unanimously. – Ian Karbal

DHHR might become three. Its problems go deeper

The West Virginia Division of Health and Human Resources building in downtown Charleston. Photo by Kristian Thacker.

West Virginia’s largest state agency has a lot of problems and a simple goal: improve health.

Lawmakers want to split up the Department of Health and Human Resources into three agencies and tomorrow the House of Delegates will vote on a bill to do just that. The Senate passed a similar bill on the first day of the session.

“I would contend to you that an agency that is this large is too large for any individual to have their handle around,” Former House Health and Human Resources Committee chair Del. Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell, said during a meeting. “After sitting in this committee for eight years, this is long overdue.”

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, director of the American Health Initiative at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said state health departments can improve by having good data, ambitious goals and realistic strategies to get there. But, lawmakers need to make sure there is both funding and personnel to get the job done.

“You have to be wary about giving people an impossible task without the tools to make progress,” he said. “That’s not, in general, a recipe for success.”

Funding: State dollars for smaller programs are often scarce. 

DHHR has a massive budget. But most — $5.4 billion — of the agency’s $7.7 billion budget is used to maintain the state’s Medicaid program.  

Often lost in the shuffle and the victim of budget cuts are smaller programs, like those that prevent smoking. Another casualty has been the James “Tiger” Morton Catastrophic Illness Commission, a program to help pay medical bills for people without insurance that get expensive diseases like cancer. A 2022 audit of the program found it didn’t have anywhere near enough money to be effective and that multiple people died while waiting for help with medical bills.

People: This year, DHHR officials told lawmakers that 24% of positions are vacant – an increase from last year despite the department reducing the total number of positions.

Vacant positions means more work for those who stay, according to retired DHHR official Jessica Gamponia Wright. She said convoluted hiring processes can often take months.

“If you have to hire someone else, it takes forever to do that,” she said.

Data: Health advocates say a lack of high-quality data makes it hard to find well informed solutions.

Last year, Think Kids Executive Director Kelli Caseman started an initiative to assess how to address these types of gaps in West Virginia’s health data, especially among low-income, non-white and LGBTQ communities.

“It’s 2023,” Caseman said. “We should be at a point where we are taking time and creating strategies to get that data.” 

– Duncan Slade

Go deeper: As DHHR might be split into three, how was the agency intended to work?

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

Duncan Slade is Mountain State Spotlight's Deputy Managing Editor