The sixty-day legislative session ended at midnight Saturday March 7th. In past years, I had enough time to write weekly updates; unfortunately, time constraints have not allowed me to do so this year. I am on several very important committees, and rather than writing about something that already happened, I had to work constantly to read and understand legislation that we were going to be voting on. If anyone has specific questions, I would be happy to answer them. There is also a legislative website where citizens can see bills, and their history, including voting records; that is on www.wvlegislature.gov.
We passed an astonishing number of bills this year. From my point of view, some good and others not so good. I am going to hit some of the high points. Keep in mind that bills that pass the legislature still need to be signed by the governor to become law.
Much of the focus in the legislature was to provide for better care for foster children. One bill focused on clarifying the rights of foster care children, and of foster parents. We also passed a bill to create an office of foster care “ombudsman” to advocate on behalf of the children and parents as they progress through the procedural and legal process of the foster care program. I voted yes on those bills.
The legislature passed a bill to provide for pay raises for judges including supreme court judges, circuit court judges, family court judges and magistrates. While I understand that West Virginia judges have not received a raise in many years, I also had to consider the six-year projected revenue for our state. The fact that we are expected to have a $200 million deficit in just 2 years prevented me from voting for the raise.
On a related issue, we voted on a plan to create a whole new level of courts called the intermediate court of appeals. I voted no for many reasons. One is the lack of funding mentioned above; the formation of this court was going to cost over ten million dollars per year. Secondly, the Supreme Court of Appeals has already improved its policy on appeals to correct this problem. Thirdly, this would create an additional layer of bureaucracy which could be particularly burdensome for individuals and small businesses. This bill did not pass.
Although I did not support them, several bills passed that would allow people charged with serious crimes to be released more easily, creating a “revolving door” in the words of one prosecutor I spoke with. Another bill that I did not support, but that did pass, made it easier for people charged with driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol to retain their driver’s license. Finally, a bill removed the penalty of a driver losing their driver’s license for failure to pay fines. In my opinion this takes away a lot of the incentive for someone to pay their fines and fees. Again, I voted against these bills.
We considered a bill to allow drivers to have their vehicles inspected every two years instead of every year. Statistics of surrounding states that do not require inspections at all show that there is no clear advantage of requiring these inspections. I thought this would be a small way of relieving some burden on our citizens with no negative effect. I was very supportive of this bill, unfortunately it failed.
On the issue of roads, which I know is one of the biggest issues for everyone, we passed a bill to clarify procedures and to make right of ways purchases fair and efficient. That will help with costs and speed of road construction. Funding is already in place for many repairs. The Division of Highways representatives tell us that there are such a large number of repairs needed that there are not enough crews, or contractors, to do it all. Major floods and slips in recent years have also made the problem worse. I want everyone to know that if I, and other local representatives, had the authority to direct specific projects in our community to be completed immediately, we certainly would do so. We have repeatedly brought local needs to the attention of the Division of Highways. They assure us that they are working as quickly as possible to get to our much needed repairs. Delegate Cadle made a great argument against another bill that increased weight limits on large trucks which would only further damage our roads. We both voted no on the weight increase; it did pass, however.
Among the last bills to be passed is the budget bill. It is done at the end of the session because any spending increases or decreases must to be accounted for in the final budget. We always budget for the coming year, so we are planning for the 2021 year. The final budget, including federal funding, is over $13 billion. The general revenue number, which the state legislature has control of, is nearly $4.6 billion. While I approve of most of the spending within it, I voted no on the entire package because it includes a lot of unnecessary and wasteful spending such as an $11 million subsidy every year for horse racing, which was just added last year, and about $15 million every year for greyhound dog purses and breeding. It is incredibly disappointing to me that we spend taxpayer money on these types of things while failing to repair our roads or build infrastructure to allow for economic development and job growth.
This is my last session as your representative in the House of Delegates; I will be running for the State Senate in the primary election on May 12, 2020. It has truly been an honor to serve you in the House. One of the most enjoyable privileges was to sponsor students from our community to help us as participants in the Page Program; they will be our leaders soon and this is a great introduction for them.
During the legislative session we are overwhelmed with demands, often from big campaign contributors. I always consciously acknowledge that I am your voice in state government while you are busy at home and at work; I take that very seriously. Over eight years and four election cycles, I ran on a platform of traditional Biblical principles, pro-life, pro-gun rights, personal responsibility, and smaller more efficient government; I have worked to put those principles into policy. I was blessed to have the vote of a large majority of our community; I am very grateful!
In my farewell speech to the House of Delegates I spoke about why I love the people of West Virginia, about how I admire the spirit of people who carved a life out of the mountains, and about how we love our freedom; after all, our motto is Mountaineers Always Free.
I know I already said this, but it is an honor to serve you! I greatly appreciate your support and prayers over the years…
Delegate Jim Butler (R-Gallipolis Ferry) represents the 14th district in the House of Delegates. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.