The West Virginia Legislature overrode Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's vetoes Friday of two highly contentious pieces of legislation that Republicans argue are pro-growth and Democrats argue will harm workers and lower wages.
West Virginia will become a right-to-work state on July 1, 2016, and the state's prevailing wage will be repealed 90 days from when the bill is enrolled, sometime in mid-May.
The state Senate voted 18-16, along party lines, to override Tomblin's veto of right-to-work legislation (SB 1) and his veto of a bill to repeal the state's prevailing wage law (HB 4005). Every Republican voted in favor of overriding the governor's vetoes and every Democrat voted against.
The House of Delegates voted 55-43, with solely Republican support, to override the prevailing wage veto and 54-43, again with solely GOP support, to override the right-to-work veto. On both measures, eight Republicans voted with Democrats to uphold the vetoes.
The West Virginia Constitution requires only a majority in each chamber to override a veto.
After hours of debate in both chambers on the initial passage of the bills, the veto overrides felt like foregone conclusions, and debate was brief.
Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer and a candidate for governor, said he was relieved to have the votes behind him.
“All these things are part of a bigger package that will make West Virginia a place that businesses, the job creators, want to locate,” Cole said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, called it a “momentous occasion.” He talked about West Virginia's beleaguered economy and the state's status at the bottom of many socioeconomic rankings.
“We've been attacked as some right-wing conspiracy group,” Carmichael said. “We want prosperity, jobs, opportunity, growth — and what we [currently] are doing is not working.”
Both bills are supported by much of the state's business community but strongly opposed by unions.
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, called the two bills a “double-barreled attack” on working families. He said he doesn't remember any Republicans running campaigns based on repealing prevailing wage or passing a right-to-work law, although he said that Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, waved his hand.
“Some would say this is a historic day for West Virginia,” said Kessler, who also is a candidate for governor. “I submit to you that it is a horrific day. This is not based on any empirical evidence; this is based on a political attack upon unions, upon workers, upon families, upon our communities.”
In the House, Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, thanked Tomblin.
“I want to thank the governor for trying his best to veto these two bills that clearly, clearly the majority of West Virginians we represent don't believe we need,” Caputo said.
The Legislature took up the veto overrides at the first possible moment after Tomblin's vetoes Thursday afternoon.
Tomblin declined to comment on the veto overrides, pointing, through a spokesman, to the messages he sent the Legislature with his vetoes.
“We don't need to pass bills that lower the wages of West Virginia workers and do little, if anything, to stimulate our economy,” Tomblin wrote in vetoing the prevailing wage repeal.
“I have never had a company cite right to work as a barrier to relocating to West Virginia,” the governor wrote in his other veto message. “Our issues are best addressed by improving our workforce and creating new development opportunities.”
Right-to-work laws allow workers in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying union dues even though they continue to reap union benefits. West Virginia is the 26th state to pass one.
Republicans say the law will give workers the freedom to choose whether to support a union or not and argue that it will attract businesses to the state.
“Today, members of both chambers of the West Virginia Legislature set the state on the course for job-growth by finalizing passage of right-to-work,” said Jason Huffman, state director of Americans for Prosperity, a pro-business group founded and largely funded by Charles and David Koch. “We applaud their swift response to the governor's veto.”
The state's prevailing wage law mandates a minimum wage for workers on state-funded construction projects. Republicans say its repeal will save taxpayers money. Democrats say its repeal will lower wages for construction workers and lead to out-of-state contractors winning construction contracts.
Democrats say the two bills are designed to weaken unions and will result in lower wages and less-safe workplaces.
Kenny Perdue, president of the state AFL-CIO, said the Republican leadership pushed the bills, “despite appeals from thousands of hard-working West Virginians and hundreds of employers and contractors.
“In the coming months, we will direct our energy and resources toward reminding West Virginia working families which legislators failed them and urging them to vote accordingly — to remember in November,” Perdue said.
Sen. William Laird, D-Fayette, noted the party-line nature of the vote.
“Clearly, this issue has fractured the body of our Senate,” Laird said, “and we sit here today as a house divided.”