Statehouse Beat: An extended special session, two years in a row

For the second year in a row, the Legislature has faced budget deficits caused by ongoing systemic structural problems with the state revenue plan.

For the second year in a row, the Legislature went into an extended special session to try to break a budget impasse.

For the second year in a row, instead of bearing down and making the tough decisions — raising taxes or eliminating programs — the Legislature, after 20 days in special session and 128 days after convening in regular session, slapped together a makeshift budget bill as a July 1 government shutdown deadline loomed, a practice also known as kicking the can down the road.

It just so happened that a film crew showed up at the Capitol pressroom last week, doing some sort of documentary on the Gazette-Mail, and briefly interviewed me, perhaps for comic relief.

One question they asked struck me: Does the Legislature always have lengthy special sessions to resolve the budget bill?

It occurred to me that in 27 years here, the impasses have occurred only in the past two years.

In fact, for most of my time following the Legislature, passage of the budget bill has been something of a pro forma, taking just a few days following the end of the regular session.

When Cecil Underwood was governor, he would complain that the Legislature was purposely stretching out the budget conference so they could stay in town for the high school basketball tournament, and at least one time, he threatened to move the tournament out of Charleston. The idea that the Legislature used to stay for a whole week after the session to finish the budget bill seems nostalgic these days.

It also occurred to me that for most of those years, there was a reason passage of the budget was a relatively easy matter.

The year before I started covering the Legislature, in 1989, Gov. Gaston Caperton and the Legislature found themselves facing the equivalent of about a $700 million deficit in today’s dollars.

Facing dire times, they didn’t name-call or blame members of the other party or other house, they didn’t go through a dozen variations of the same unpassable plan, and they didn’t put bull excrement on a silver platter to make a point.

Meeting for three days prior to the start of the 1989 regular session, the governor, Senate, and House rolled up their sleeves and passed the revenue measures necessary to stabilize the budget — a stability that lasted for more than two decades, and very well would still be holding had recent Legislatures not enacted some $400 million a year of tax cuts.

I’m sure some worried if they would lose votes or financial support in future elections, but that didn’t stop them from having the courage to do what had to be done.

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One of the more tiresome phrases repeated in the special session has been, “Live within our means,” often within the context of comparing state government to a household, as if the current revenue structure were carved in stone tablets and brought down from the mountaintop, with no ability to raise or lower that amount.

Is “our means” the current budget, or the budget before previous legislatures cut significant amounts of revenue through a series of tax reductions over the past decade?

As a reader noted, it’s a tad hypocritical for legislators of means who’ve never had to go without or cut or scrimp, or who can fall back on family wealth, to talk about “living within our means.”

An example given was Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, who has his business, RFHealthplex, located in one of his dad’s buildings, and regularly drives pickups from one of his dad’s dealerships.

I can verify there was a truck in Senate parking this week with dealer plates and an A&B Kia of Benwood logo, one of Michael Ferns’ dealerships. Sen. Ferns did not respond to a request for explanation — perhaps a very long test drive.

Additionally, part of the senior Ferns’ means comes from a state government contract. He leases office space to the Department of Health and Human Resources in downtown Wheeling for $42,763 a month, or $513,162 a year.

Speaking of senators, our pal Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Upshur (?), continued to wreak havoc at the Legislature, making crude comments that led to a mass exodus of legislators from both parties from a meeting with the governor over the budget.

Kudos, meanwhile, to Record Delta staff writer Katie Kuba for getting Karnes on record admitting he was registered to vote in Florida.

In her interview, Karnes insisted he had met the five-year residency requirement to run for state Senate in 2014. As for whether he had voted in Florida in the 2010 general election (which would be illegal if he had, in fact, reestablished his West Virginia residency in 2009), he said, “I have no idea if I did or not.”

Actually, you don’t have to guess, senator, the Elections Office keeps records of when you voted.

Karnes, meanwhile, has since canceled his Florida voter registration.

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Wanted to take a moment to remember Circuit Judge John Yoder, who served two terms in the state Senate.

Mention Yoder’s name at the Capitol, and anyone who’s been around here a while will respond, “Judiciary Committee window,” referring to the afternoon in March 1993, now part of Statehouse legend, when angry members of a state employees union effectively held the Judiciary Committee hostage trying to get them to agree to take up a collective bargaining bill.

Those being days before Capitol Police or cellphones, a panicked Yoder opened a window in the committee room and climbed out onto the ledge to call to onlookers for help.

The legend, of course, is that the window had been frozen stuck for years, and General Services workers had made multiple unsuccessful attempts to loosen it. Ah, the magic of adrenaline.

For a Republican, Yoder’s politics were remarkably progressive. One evening about a month later, the Senate took up a resolution calling on Congress to support the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Legislators being legislators, the seemingly benign resolution turned controversial. Then-Sen. Joe Manchin amended the resolution to exclude flag desecration as protected speech, and there were attempts to add the Second and Fifth amendments to the resolution.

In all the hullabaloo, the Senate ended up voting down the resolution on a voice vote, prompting Yoder to angrily remind the senators they had sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution.

“I don’t see how we, as a body, could turn against our oath and vote to do something unconstitutional,” Yoder said, before storming out of chambers and threatening to resign.

Fortunately, he returned the next day, and in a floor speech said, “It’s probably a good thing that last night, I wasn’t on a ledge or I might have jumped off. In this day and age, we all ought to be very proud of our form of government, our constitutional form of government.”

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Finally, news that Frontier Communications fired Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, perhaps because he refused to kill the broadband expansion bill the company opposed, raised this question from a statehouse wag: When’s the last time in state history that a sitting Senate President and House Speaker were both unemployed?

Neither Carmichael nor Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, has filed for an employment exemption with the Ethics Commission to pursue new job opportunities.

Armstead, you may recall, withdrew his previous request for an exemption after the commission tabled consideration of it at its December meeting to gather further information about his request for an advisory opinion on whether he could join a law firm that retains legislative lobbyists.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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