(Editor’s note: This column was written prior to SB 451, the omnibus education bill, passing in the Senate and moving on to the House of Delegates.)
One issue dominated the fourth week of the 2019 legislative session, the now-133 page omnibus education bill, a bill that has grown more controversial by the day. Watch #WVPressInSight discussion of SB 451 online at https://wvpress.org/?p=65500
It stands to pass the Senate this Monday, Feb. 4, just eight legislative days after it was originated in Senate Education Committee, and likely by a narrow 18-16 margin.
On Friday, a number of amendments offered by Senate Democrats were defeated by that margin, as a coalition of 18 Republicans – minus Sens. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, and Kenny Mann, R-Monroe – held firm against major changes to the bill.
That included attempts to remove provisions establishing charter schools in the state, as well as an amendment to strip out everything from the bill, except Gov. Jim Justice’s original proposal to give a second round of 5 percent pay raises to teachers and school service personnel.
Also defeated was an amendment by Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, to remove a rare “non-severability” clause from the bill, a provision opponents believe is an effort to dampen opposition to portions of the bill such as charter schools or Education Savings Accounts, since if any one section of the bill were overturned in court, the entire legislation – including the pay raises – would be invalidated.
“I think its mean-spirited to have this in the bill,” Palumbo said, noting that most legislation has just the opposite, with severability clauses that allow other portions of a bill to stand if one section is overturned in court.
However, Senate Judiciary Chairman Charlie Trump, R-Morgan, argued that the unusual provision is a shield against overzealous judicial intervention, since the court could not strike down pieces of the legislation.
Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, questioned the authorship of the bill, which he said emerged in Senate Education Committee with no input from the executive branch, the Board of Education, educators or other stakeholders.
Teachers and teachers unions have been particularly adamant in opposition to the omnibus bill, rallying at the Capitol Thursday evening in protest. Local chapters of the West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers/West Virginia are expected to take strike authorization votes the week of Feb. 4.
Gov. Jim Justice also called a press conference to speak out against the omnibus bill, saying he will veto it if it reaches his desk.
“All we’re doing today is really just creating a mess when a mess doesn’t need to be created,” he said of the divisive legislation.
In one of his better Jim-isms, he said of the bill, “This just irritates the peanuts out of me.”
After a likely 18-16 passage vote in the Senate, the bill faces an uncertain future in the House of Delegates, where Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, issued a less-than-enthusiastic statement about the measure, saying House leadership is instead committed to “passing bills to improve compensation for teachers, service personnel and state employees.”
Also at the Capitol:
West Virginia could become the 38thstate to exempt social security retirement income from state personal income taxes, after legislation to do so passed the House of Delegates Friday on a 96-1 vote (HB 2001).
Advocated by Justice, and a key legislative agenda item for AARP West Virginia, supporters framed the bill as a fairness issue, and touted its potential to encourage retirees to move to the state.
However, Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, who voted for the bill, raised concerns that the exemption will most benefit higher-income retirees, since at least one-third of all retirees in the state do not have enough income to opt for the Social Security exemption in lieu of the current $8,000 per person standard deduction for persons age 65 or older.
“I think what we have to do is renew our commitment to poor seniors, the ones we have talked about who are having difficulty paying for their prescriptions,” said Rowe.
The bill now goes to the Senate.
Transportation Secretary Tom Smith told three legislative committees he understands the public’s frustration with the pace of road construction and repairs, 16 months after voters approved the Roads to Prosperity road bond referendum.
He said that has helped increase funding for secondary road maintenance from $40 million to more than $200 million a year, but said that’s still far below the $750 million a year needed to keep state roads in good repair.
“We realize that’s still not enough to take care of our roads,” he said.
A link to SB 451, and its status, is found online at http://www.wvlegislature.gov/Bill_Status/bills_text.cfm?billdoc=SB451%20SUB1%20ENG.htm&yr=2019&sesstype=RS&i=451
Phil Kabler is the Charleston Gazette-Mail Capitol Correspondent. His column is made available through the West Virginia Press Association to its member newspapers.