While bills to expand broadband Internet access to rural areas, and to provide grants and other incentives to encourage students to attend community and technical colleges advanced during the first full week of the 2019 legislative session, much attention was on a proposal that has virtually no chance of passage.
In something of a publicity stunt, three delegates – Carl Martin, R-Upshur, Patrick Martin, R-Lewis, and Caleb Hanna, R-Webster – announced that they would sponsor a bill to divert $10 million of state budget surplus to help fund a $5.7 billion border wall that President Donald Trump is seeking to build.
While the border wall funding is part of a budget impasse that has led to an extended partial federal government shutdown, the delegates’ proposal to donate state funds to the wall mimics legislation introduced in Montana and South Dakota, the Associated Press reported.
While ostensibly an attempt to win favor from Trump supporters in the state, the delegates’ proposal generated a storm of blowback on social media and talk radio, with the consensus being that the $10 million could be better spent on pressing needs in West Virginia.
The week was also marked by blowback after Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, resigned from the Senate, effective Monday, to pursue fulltime a presidential run in 2020, then objected when Gov. Jim Justice appointed a longtime legislative lobbyist to fill the vacancy.
“Do I hate the fact the governor appointed somebody in my seat who is a lobbyist who works for the governor? I think that’s absolutely horrible,” said Ojeda, who told the Gazette-Mail he had asked whether it would be possible to rescind his resignation.
His replacement, Paul Hardesty, had been a longtime lobbyist, with a long list of clients including the James C. Justice companies, and The Greenbrier resort, owned by the governor.
Hardesty, who cancelled his state Ethics Commission registration as a lobbyist on Thursday, was sworn in as a senator on Friday. Hardesty also resigned as a member of the Logan County Board of Education.
Justice made the appointment within hours of receiving a list of three nominees from the 7th Senatorial District Democratic Executive Committee.
Other nominees were former Sen. Art Kirkendoll, whom Ojeda defeated in the 2016 primary election, and former longtime Delegate Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, who did not run for re-election in 2016, after serving 11 terms in the House.
Also during the first full week of the 60-day legislative session:
The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced without debate or opposition a bill to repeal restrictions against having firearms in vehicles on the state Capitol complex grounds (SB18), but debated at length whether to authorize a state-issued “Choose Life” license plate (SB92).
Similar to legislation passed last year allowing firearms to be stored in vehicles on private property, regardless of any restrictions the property owner might oppose, the bill would allow firearms in vehicles on the state Capitol grounds, so long as the vehicles are locked and the weapons are out of view.
Conversely, there was considerable debate over legislation to authorize a specialty license plate that its sponsor, Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said is ostensibly intended to promote adoption.
However, the text of the bill designates that the message on the plate is to be “Choose Life,” which, as Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, pointed out, has political connotations as a catch phrase used by anti-abortion advocates.
“I just think that we don’t want to make West Virginia license plates into a forum for political views,” Romano said, after Rucker rejected his request to change the plate’s message to “Adopt First.”
The bill’s fate is uncertain, after Judiciary Chairman Charlie Trump, R-Morgan, abruptly halted the meeting in mid-debate.
Making the first Supreme Court budget presentation to the Legislature since voters in November overwhelmingly approved the Judicial Budget Oversight Amendment to the state Constitution, giving the Legislature authority to set the court’s budget, Chief Justice Beth Walker pledged a new era of transparency and cooperation from the high court.
“There are five justices now on the Supreme Court of Appeals who are working as a team,” she told the Senate Finance Committee. “We’re dedicated to working with you, working to regain your trust, working to regain the public’s trust.”
Walker’s presentation of the court’s $131.15 million budget proposal for 2019-20 comes after a tumultuous year for the Supreme Court that saw two justices convicted in federal court, and four justices impeached by the House of Delegates.
This column written by Phil Kabler for the West Virginia Press Association.