At the Capitol: W.Va. Education bills and guns on campus draw attention


By Phil Kabler - Contributing columnist



After days of intense focus, and seemingly endless hours of debate, in a instant on Tuesday, the key issue of the 2019 legislative session, the omnibus education bill (SB451), died.

At 12:34 p.m., to the cheers of galleries filled with striking teachers, the House of Delegates voted 53-45 to kill the bill, using the rare parliamentary motion to postpone indefinitely any future consideration of the bill.

In calling for the motion, Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, told delegates, “I believe we need to reject this bill now. That’s what ends this strike.”

The sudden end for the controversial bill marked a dramatic 36 hours that saw the Senate on Monday take the House’s stripped down version of the bill – which removed or diluted disputed provisions such as charter schools, educational savings accounts, and measures the teachers’ unions regarded as punitive retaliation for the 2018 statewide teachers’ walkout — and added an amendment restoring most of those measures.

That, too, proved controversial, as Senate Democrats demanded a recess to review the amendment, which they had received only moments before the Senate floor session began, in violation of Senate rules requiring one-hour availability of amendments prior to votes.

Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, called it “legislation by ambush.”

Senate leadership granted the recess, and the Senate that evening passed the amended version of the bill on a 18-16 vote — which ultimately resulted in the House of Delegates taking up the Senate message on Tuesday, instead of Monday evening as originally intended.

By the time the House returned to the Capitol on Tuesday, striking teachers had mobilized, filling the Capitol with rallies reminiscent of the 2018 walkout that inspired other teachers’ strikes across the country.

One theme was clear Tuesday, that teachers were willing to forfeit a $2,000 pay raise in the legislation, if necessary, to assure defeat of the Senate bill.

“The Senate decided to go back to its retaliatory, anti-public education, anti-teacher bill, and that is why teachers all across West Virginia — bus drivers, school secretaries, para-professionals — have converged on Charleston, because they don’t have a choice,” said Randi Weingarten, national president of the American Federation of Teachers, who came to West Virginia to support the striking teachers.

With the demise of the omnibus education bill, the House took up a so-called “clean” pay raise bill, which includes raises for teachers and school service personnel promised by Gov. Jim Justice last fall, but no other educational measures.

That bill (HB2730) passed the House 89-8 on Friday, and goes to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain.

On Friday, Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, issued a statement of opposition to the stand-alone pay raise bill.

“I always said I would vote for a pay raise of 5 percent,” he said. “I did it last year, and I did it this year already. But I also have said publicly that if they went out on strike that I would not vote for a pay raise.”

With the demise of the education bill, one of the hot topics emerging at the Capitol as the 2019 regular session rolls into its final two weeks is a bill to allow persons with concealed carry permits to bring firearms onto campuses of public colleges and universities (HB2519).

On Thursday, the House Finance Committee advanced the bill to the House floor without amendment, undaunted by a fiscal note from the Higher Education Policy Commission indicating that the first year of implementation of the bill will cost state colleges $11.6 million to make required security enhancements on campus, including hiring new police officers and security guards.

The NRA-backed bill appears to be on a fast track to passage, despite significant opposition, highlighted by a Feb. 11 public hearing, where opponents of the bill outnumbered proponents by a more than three-to-one margin, and included college administrators, students, parents, and law enforcement officers.

On Thursday, Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert issued a statement opposing the legislation, saying, “Marshall University remains steadfast in it’s opposition to guns on college campuses. The safety and security of our students, faculty and staff is of paramount importance to us, and this legislation threatens the very foundation of that responsibility.”

At West Virginia University on Thursday, opponents rallied at Woodburn Circle to protest the bill.

WVU Vice President Rob Alsop said that while WVU administrators prefer that decisions on firearms safety be made by the university’s Board of Governors, and not by the Legislature, the reality is that the bill has considerable support among legislators and is likely to pass.

Alsop said his focus has been on adding exceptions to the bill to create a number of places on campus where firearms would still be prohibited, including patient care facilities, mental health counseling facilities, and laboratories containing hazardous materials.

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By Phil Kabler

Contributing columnist

This column by Phil Kabler of the Charleston Gazette-Mail is made available to its members by the West Virginia Press Association.

This column by Phil Kabler of the Charleston Gazette-Mail is made available to its members by the West Virginia Press Association.