Did last week make you proud to be a West Virginian?
Don’t answer that.
Between Gov. Jim Justice’s thug life and Delegate Eric Porterfield’s hissy fit on the House floor, this was another week at the sorry circus that is our state’s political center.
Certainly, nothing that would encourage our best and brightest expatriate West Virginians to come home, or motivate educated folks to move here.
The governor and Legislature should be shining beacons, promoting the state as a place to work and live — not a source of laughter and cautionary tales to the rest of the country.
Two more quick points on Justice. It took the governor nearly three days after the incident to offer a half-hearted apology for calling female high school students thugs — which, racial connotations aside, is surely not an appropriate thing for a 68-year-old man and leader of the state to say about children.
The other point is that I was surprised by the number of calls and emails from readers who were genuinely surprised to learn that Justice is coaching basketball in the midst of a legislative session. Those of us in the news business tend to assume that everyone follows the news as closely as we do, but that obviously is not true.
Then I got to thinking what a great time commitment is required to coach high school basketball.
Looking at the Greenbrier East schedule, the girls team generally plays two games a week (with occasional one-game weeks) in a regular season that ends next week, followed by sectionals, regionals, and a state tournament that can stretch the season beyond the last day of the legislative session, on March 7.
Throw in travel (although some of the road games are in the Kanawha Valley), and two or three practices a week, and that’s a lot of time devoted to coaching — not counting the nearly two-hour drive between Charleston and Fairlea.
No wonder Justice sightings at the Capitol this session have been as uncommon as Rep. Alex Mooney sightings in Kanawha County.
If after becoming governor, Gaston Caperton had continued to go up the hill and devote several hours a day to running McDonough-Caperton, there undoubtedly would have been considerable uproar from voters.
Not to say that governors can’t have hobbies. As governor, Earl Ray Tomblin raised gardens both in Chapmansville and outside the Governor’s Mansion. However, unlike basketball, the legislative session and the growing season generally don’t overlap.
Meanwhile, we should hold the people of Mercer County — or at least the 8,845 who voted to elect Eric Porterfield to the House of Delegates in 2018 — responsible for the circus atmosphere in the House last week.
Without devoting too much space to his nonsense, Porterfield demanded on Wednesday that third-reading bills be read in full on the House floor — a tactic that can slow legislative business to a crawl — because he was miffed that House leaders had declined to discipline Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh. Steele had evidently confronted Porterfield for walking out on a vote in a minor committee Tuesday when a bill Steele sponsored died on an 11-11 tie.
Disagreements of this sort between legislators probably occur a thousand times a session. They usually blow over quickly, and rarely rise to the level of newsworthiness. But Porterfield, for some reason, couldn’t let this one go.
Being the despicable fellow he is, Porterfield threw innuendo into his grievance, implying on the House floor that Steele was intoxicated when he confronted Porterfield in a Capitol parking area Tuesday evening.
(For the record, there was a legislative reception Tuesday at the Culture Center, so the claim that Steele or any other legislator might have had alcohol on his or her breath wouldn’t imply impropriety.)
Being the homophobe he is, Porterfield also allegedly either directed some homosexual slurs at Steele, or implied that Steele supports LGBTQ legislation. Either way, Steele took offense.
A good deal of blame needs to be directed at House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, D-Clay, who has struggled to keep a tenuous grasp on the House during his tenure. Last session, Hanshaw failed to discipline Porterfield when he used a homosexual slur during a committee debate, and then intimated in an interview that he would drown his children if he learned they were gay.
Perhaps we can give Mercer County voters a pass for electing Porterfield, who portrayed himself as an anti-abortion, pro-gun man of the cloth in 2018. Voters may not have known about his threats against a local OB-GYN who supported legal abortions that required her to obtain a restraining order. They may not have known that he was inspired to run for office after a bill was introduced in the Legislature in 2018 to ban conversion therapy.
However, after two years of Porterfield’s offensive behavior, if they reelect him this fall, the fault is all on them.
Back some two decades ago, when my hair was somewhat darker and the Legislature was somewhat more enlightened, legislators looked at thriving municipalities in other states, and saw how they were contributing to the prosperity and quality of life in those states, and set out to resuscitate municipalities in West Virginia that were slowly dying from a lack of self-governance and inability to raise enough money to maintain a reasonable level of services.
They passed new laws giving municipalities Home Rule, and encouraging creation of metro governments.
In recent years, despite a state party platform advocating local control at all levels of government, the current Republican legislative leaders have been gung-ho in passing measures to squeeze life out of our municipalities.
As mentioned before, bills are moving to make annexation much more difficult, and to erase the last remaining vestiges of common-sense municipal gun safety regulations, including prohibiting firearms at outdoor events where alcohol may be served.
In the Senate, a bill is advancing that would effectively prohibit cities and counties from enacting a whole variety of ordinances in excess of state law, prohibiting localities from enacting a higher minimum wage, more generous leave time or benefits, or to regulate the sale or marketing of consumer products, right down to prohibiting localities from banning use of plastic straws or bags (SB 135).
The argument for the legislation is that businesses want uniformity, and would find having to adapt to variations in law from locality to locality overly complicated. (Which is why most businesses operate only in single states, since having to conform to variations in policy among multiple states would just be too onerous to try to reckon with.)
The more suspicious among us — Sen. Paul Hardesty, D-Logan, being one — is that the primary intent of the bill is to prevent localities from enacting professional licensing requirements that are stricter than state law. This comes just as a series of ALEC/Koch brother(s) bills to de-license a wide variety of mostly blue-collar occupations are moving in the House.
While the official argument is that de-licensing will eliminate unnecessary regulation and obstacles that make it more difficult for low-income individuals to enter these professions, the real issue is that people who have the education, training and experience to obtain a professional license generally demand higher wages than those who do not.
Meanwhile, there are good reasons why municipalities would mandate that licensed professionals provide certain services.
If an improperly wired double-wide in the country catches fire, no one is affected other than the property owner. If an improperly wired 20-story office building or 10-story apartment building in a city catches fire, that’s a catastrophe.
However, the real coup de grace for local control could start moving in the Senate next week, with activity on the long-awaited joint resolution to repeal the state personal property tax on manufacturing equipment, machinery and inventory — likely to be sweetened with repeal of the personal property tax on motor vehicles in hopes of making it palatable to voters who would have to approve a constitutional amendment this November.
That would blow a $300 million-plus hole into budgets for counties, school boards and municipalities, supposedly to be made up with a 0.5 percent increase in the consumer sales tax, and an increase in various tobacco taxes.
(I’ll probably try to figure out at some future point how much of the savings from elimination of the car tax would be offset by an increase in the sales tax. It was pointed out to me that many low-income West Virginians either don’t own a vehicle or have vehicles with so little assessed value that their car taxes are next to nothing. I know that when my previous car got old enough to vote, I was paying more in late fees than in taxes on it.)
If that all comes down, it would further make localities dependent on state government to “make them whole” with state funding to fill in for the lost property tax revenue, and make them more beholden to follow whatever demands legislators in Charleston place on them.
Finally, unfortunately there comes a time in life when each week, it seems we have to say goodbye to another friend or colleague.
Last week, we lost Raamie Barker, Chapmanville mayor and longtime senior advisor to Senate President and Gov. Tomblin.
Barker may have been the last of a dying breed, a newspaperman who went into politics after a long career as a reporter and editor.
As such, he brought a first-hand appreciation and understanding of the work that reporters do. He understood that we have a job to do, and that job is to report the news, not to provide good PR for the politicians.
While his boss was never particularly fond of the media, we certainly weren’t treated as adversaries or enemies, as occurs all too frequently these days.