Capitol observers (from afar) have been in a state of befuddlement this session as the Legislature advances caustic bill after caustic bill — bills that will harm many West Virginians, denigrate state institutions and discourage investment in or relocation to the state.
That’s occurring as bills that would make West Virginia a more welcoming, empathetic state will officially meet their formal demise as time for their consideration this session expires. Which is roughly at the same time as you’re reading this breathless prose.
Yet, the method to the legislative madness became clear Tuesday, as the Legislature paid its annual homage to the National Rifle Association by advancing from Senate Judiciary a slew of anti-gun-safety bills and resolutions. (Never mind the extreme tone deafness and extreme disrespect to undertake legislation to repeal whatever semblance of gun safety measures are left in West Virginia mere hours after the second mass shooting in the U.S. in a week left 10 people dead.)
One of those provisions proposes amending the state Constitution to prohibit cities and counties from enacting stricter gun safety laws than in state law — a prohibition that was put into state Code in 2014 to assure cities like Charleston could not limit handgun sales to out-of-state drug dealers.
When asked about the redundancy of the amendment, proponents of the resolution said they want to assure West Virginia doesn’t become like Virginia.
My home state (and likely future place of residence if West Virginia doesn’t get its act together) had been reliably red for decades, but as demographics and population began to change, giving cities and suburbs greater influence in state elections, Virginia began shifting to blue.
After years of consistently backing Republican presidential candidates, Virginia went for President Barack Obama twice, Hillary Clinton and, most recently, President Joe Biden.
At the state level, the transition was complete in 2020, when the governorship and both houses of the General Assembly went Democratic.
The new Democratic leadership set out to address sins of the past in the Commonwealth, passing legislation expanding voting, LGBTQ and reproductive rights, along with passage of gun safety laws, decriminalization and now legalization of marijuana, abolishment of the death penalty, criminal justice reform, protections for workers and legislation ordering relocation of Confederate monuments.
In other words, the complete opposite of the s***show we’re experiencing under our Capitol dome.
The mere thought that West Virginia could ever follow the lead of the mother state is anathema to current legislative leadership, which is doing everything in its power to assure that never happens.
Significantly, that includes doing everything possible to undermine the authority, fiscal health and attractiveness of cities in the state, since cities are where blue voters tend to congregate and if allowed to grow and thrive as in Virginia, would assure the Republican stranglehold on the state eventually would cease, as it did in the Commonwealth.
(The town where I grew up, Chester, population 22,000-plus, is so insignificant by Virginia standards that it’s not worthy of incorporation. In West Virginia, it would be the sixth largest city in the state.)
Likewise, maintaining power means sending a message to demographic groups that tend to vote blue that their kinds are not welcome in West Virginia.
That’s why the Legislature scuttled the Fairness and Crown acts and is proceeding with bills to further restrict reproductive rights and assure white supremacist statuary remain standing in prominent locations around the state.
All their talk about wanting to grow the state population by 400,000 is just a smokescreen to provide cover for efforts to cut taxes for their wealthy benefactors and defund functions of state and local government, including, ironically, the police.
(The House version of the income tax cut (HB3300) removes all pretense that it is anything but an effort to shrink government to the size that it can be drowned in a bathtub, cutting state revenue by growing multiples of $150 million each year with no real mechanism to recoup those losses.)
The last thing the current leadership wants is for the state population to actually grow significantly, since like Virginia, that would surely change demographics and assure their downfall.
That’s why, with a handful of exceptions, the vast majority of bills advancing this session will make West Virginia even less attractive to investors and outsiders.
Current leadership will do everything it can to retain power, even if that means ruining West Virginia in the process.
Progressive Democrats always manage to be their own worst enemies.
Case in point: By all accounts, Delegate Kayla Young, D-Kanawha, this session has been diligent, hardworking, dedicated to constituent services and, most of all, effective.
On Wednesday, the House passed two bills with Young as lead sponsor, a remarkable accomplishment for any freshman legislator, let alone one in the superminority.
Yet, if one relied only on social media to track the session, you’d be convinced Young was single-handedly responsible for killing progressive legislation, particularly the aforementioned Crown Act.
Her offense? She sponsored, at a constituent’s request, a concurrent resolution to recognize the pepperoni roll as the official state food.
Regular readers of this column will know I’m no fan of concurrent resolutions. They’re essentially meaningless, not worth the paper on which they’re printed.
However, the vitriol directed at Delegate Young for a harmless diversion is unfair and unwarranted.
Blame Republican leadership in the House and Senate for bottling up progressive legislation like the Crown Act, for the reasons outlined in the preceding column item. It’s absurd and counterproductive to think any of those bills would have been taken up by the House and Senate supermajorities if only the House had not spent a few moments addressing a pepperoni roll resolution.
Safe to say, Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, clinched the title for legislator having the worst week of the session when he followed his “voting for a racist bill doesn’t make you racist” floor speech a week ago with a positive test for COVID-19.
Leadership’s response to the first outbreak of the session was surprisingly lackadaisical, given that Steele had been quite the social butterfly in the days leading up to his positive test.
He attended, sans mask, a special St. Patrick’s Day edition of “Bites and Bills,” the weekly legislative reception hosted by OMEGA West Virginia lobbyists Summer Barrett and Daniel Hall and a West Virginia Association of Counties legislative dinner at Laury’s. He also was spotted at the discrete nod to the old Coal Suite, in the form of the West Virginia Coal Association’s regularly hosting evening receptions at Beni Kedem. (Clearly, it’s still too dangerous for the public to be allowed in the Capitol to observe the legislative process, but hunky dory for legislators to mingle with the public elsewhere.)
Even though legislators jumped to the front of the line for COVID-19 vaccinations, considering 14 delegates and some nine senators turned down the opportunity to get their shots, leadership should be sweating bullets that Steele’s indiscretion doesn’t lead to an outbreak.
We’ve established that, for a politician and a businessman, Gov. Jim Justice has remarkably thin skin and holds grudges for interminably long periods of time.
At Monday’s COVID-19 briefing Justice, presumably peeved at a column item speculating that his income tax elimination/tax shift proposal could boost sales of multi-million-dollar houses at his Greenbrier Sporting Club, went off on the Gazette-Mail, contending that unfair coverage of his Old White Charities prompted a federal investigation and ultimately led to the demise of PGA Golf at The Greenbrier.
While I’ve done column items about Old White over the years, Justice was referring to articles Jake Zuckerman wrote in 2018, stemming from lawsuits filed by several contractors over nonpayment for services after flooding led to cancellation of the 2016 Greenbrier Classic.
Jake left the Gazette-Mail more than 15 months ago for a job at the Ohio Capital Journal, but that reality didn’t dampen Justice’s tirade.
That Justice blames the Gazette-Mail for the demise of the Greenbrier PGA tournament in 2020 is, of course, absurd.
According to IRS 990s, Old White Charities lost money every year of operation of the tournament from 2010 to 2018, with two exceptions, in 2010, when it had an $81,710 profit, and 2012, when it was $4.49 million in the black.
In all other years, Old White Charities posted losses totaling $22.07 million. That includes five straight years of losses before Jake wrote word one about Old White Charities.
The tournament went from producing more than $19 million a year in revenue in its initial years to about $10 million in 2015 and about $5 million a year in 2017 and 2018.
Based on the 990s, it looks like the Greenbrier tournament was being run into the ground long before the Gazette-Mail had the audacity to write about Old White hitting hard times.
Arguably, it probably never made sense financially to hold a PGA tournament in a small, poor, rural state. That might be why there was no PGA golf at The Greenbrier in all the years that CSX owned the resort.
However, Justice being Justice, failure is never his fault.
There are always outside interests to blame, be it legislative Democrats for failing in 2017 to get his tax hike plan enacted or the Gazette-Mail for the demise of his golf tournament.
Finally, in a floor speech Wednesday from the Senate’s plexiglass Box of Shame for the Maskless, Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Randolph(?)/Upshur(?)/Florida(?), might have provided the most succinct description of the 2021 legislative session to date.
To quote Karnes verbatim: “Gorilla boogers, candy scabs, earwax, box of boogers, underpants, camel balls. We have jellybeans that taste like barf, moldy cheese and dog food. We have cat butt gum, and we have zit-poppers.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.