Summing up the week that was in the Senate: A coal miner and a homemaker prefacing remarks with, “I’m not a constitutional scholar,” before launching into extended personal interpretations of the Constitution.
Although there are few environmentalists in the Legislature, the Legislature is remarkably effective at recycling bad ideas, including advocating an Article V convention to amend the U.S. Constitution.
In the latest incarnation, the convention ostensibly would be held to impose term limits on members of Congress.
Which is a strange priority in a state where, of our five representatives and senators, two are first-termers, two are second-termers, and only David McKinley, in his ninth year in the House, might be in danger of being term-limited under such an amendment.
Also, a strange priority for a state that owes much to the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, whose longevity in Congress put him in a position to direct billions of dollars of federal funding to the state.
Like many issues taken up in the Legislature since 2015, lawmakers are not acting on behalf of constituent demands, but in response to a dark money campaign from a group calling itself U.S. Term Limits.
The organization has been flooding mailboxes around the state with fliers critical of legislators who have not signed their term limits pledge. (According to the organization’s website, 45 delegates and 14 senators have signed on.)
Typical message: “Stop siding with D.C. career politicians over the people of West Virginia.”
A few years back, the same dark money interests were also pushing for an Article V convention, albeit to mandate a balanced federal budget. (As recently as 2016, the Legislature passed HCR36, calling for an Article V convention on a balanced budget amendment.)
Momentum nationally for a balanced budget amendment petered out as it became clear that, noble as a balanced budget might be, it would require wholesale slashing of vital programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
So now they’re back with a seemingly more palatable proposal in congressional term limits. I mean, who has a lower approval rating than Congress? (Although there is that weird disconnect among people who will say they hate Congress, but like their representative.)
While I’m not the suspicious type, Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, is, and while he’s not a constitutional lawyer, unlike Sens. Randy Smith and Patricia Rucker, he is in fact a lawyer.
Romano — who filibustered brilliantly for the last 20 minutes of the 2019 regular session to kill the same resolution last year — suspects the dark money interests aren’t spending millions nationally just to keep McKinley from running for a sixth term. Romano also fears that once an Article V convention is convened, there’s no legal mechanism to limit it to a single issue.
One conspiracy theory is that the real intent is to repeal national income taxes, which would make the contributors to U.S. Term Limits even wealthier but would devastate national government programs and services.
It should be a warning sign that Sen. Michael Azinger, R-Wood, said an Article V convention would be “beautiful.” This is the guy who described the rally of armed extremists in Richmond, Virginia, as “a beautiful, beautiful display of people rising up.”
If this movement starts to get momentum toward the 34 state resolutions needed to call the convention, the best antidote would be for Moms Demand Action and other gun safety groups to call for a modern update for the Second Amendment. After all, the founding fathers did not envision weaponry with sophistication beyond single-shot muzzleloaders, or that the U.S. would have a large, permanent military force for its defense.
With that issue on the agenda, the Azingers of the world would probably not think an Article V convention would be so beautiful.
The September-December editions of lobbyist financial disclosures to the state Ethics Commission could be subtitled, “Which Lobbyists Paid for Legislators to Attend Conferences at The Greenbrier?”
The West Virginia Manufacturers Association — currently pushing again for repeal of the state personal property tax on manufacturing equipment and inventory — spent a total of $5,987 on legislators during the period, according to Rebecca McPhail’s disclosure.
That included a $1,928 for those attending a $24,796 reception and dinner during the association’s Winter Convention Dec. 6-7 at The Greenbrier, at a cost of more than $275 per person.
Convention expenses also included $330 each for lodging for Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay.
The association also hosted a dinner in Charleston Sept. 23 during legislative interim meetings, at a total cost of $7,052 and a cost of $2,332 for the 43 government officials in attendance.
Immediately prior to the Manufacturers Association event at The Greenbrier, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce held its Leadership Meeting at the resort Dec. 4-6, spending $3,718 on eight public officials.
Costs included $197 per person for a reception and dinner, $63 each for lunch, $49 for breakfast, and lodging ranging in cost from $233 to $315 a night, according to Steve Roberts‘ disclosure.
Total tabs (which vary based on events attended and whether overnight stays were included) were: Carmichael, $562; Hanshaw, $197; Public Service Commission chairwoman Charlotte Lane, $958; Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Austin Caperton, $494; Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, $336; Delegate Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, $310; Delegate Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, $247; Delegate Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, $624.
Roberts notes that Espinosa and Storch received trophy awards valued at $79.50 that were engraved with their names, thus rendering the awards of “nominal value” and not in violation of the $25 limit on gifts in the Ethics Act.
Jill Rice used the “nominal value” loophole from a long-ago advisory opinion in order to have Opportunity West Virginia award engraved glass figurines valued at $70 to Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, and Delegate Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, during the group’s diversity luncheon.
Not to go all Larry David, but the “nominal value” ploy irritates me to no end, and should be reconsidered by the Ethics Commission.
Using that logic, a plain bronze trophy circa 1923 would be valuable, but if it had engraving stating, “Babe Ruth, American League Most Valuable Player, 1923,” it would be worthless.
Meanwhile, in a new twist, when Republican legislators held a two-day “caucus” at the Stonewall Resort in October, Orion Strategies picked up the $3,323 tab for dinner on Oct. 20, and the West Virginia Hospital Association paid $2,594 for a luncheon there on Oct. 21.
Meanwhile, it may be indicative of an industry in its death throes that there was little in the way of spending during the period by West Virginia Coal Association lobbyists.
However, president Bill Raney did continue his tradition of buying holiday fruit baskets, spending $1,042 to have 16 baskets delivered to various state agencies and offices.
Borrowing a page from his BFF, Donald Trump, whose propensity to appoint industry lobbyists or executives to cabinet positions is well documented, Gov. Jim Justice recently appointed a state auto dealership executive as state Division of Motor Vehicles commissioner.
Everett Frazier, who took over as DMV commissioner earlier this month, is a longtime auto dealership executive, including serving as director of operations at the Thornhill GM Superstore, in Logan County.
Over the years, the dealership has had numerous mandatory statewide contracts for motor vehicle purchases, including current contracts for compact sedans or hatchbacks, mid-size sedans, two types of pickup trucks, as well as a statewide contract for State Police cruisers and utility vehicles.
(Though state contracts, municipalities, counties and other political subdivisions can purchase vehicles through the winning vendors at the same prices set in the contracts.)
Since 2019, Thornhill has sold $445,862 worth of vehicles to state agencies, according to the Auditor’s Office, primarily to the state Parkways Authority, State Police, and Marshall and West Virginia universities.
Finally, it seems as if the numbers of visitors to the Capitol are down this session. That may reflect the slowness of the session — or it may have something to do with cutbacks in shuttle bus service at the Capitol complex.
The state used to have a contract with KRT to operate a full-sized bus that ran a continuous circuit from Laidley Field parking to the buildings 5, 6 and 7 office towers, to the East Wing of the Capitol, and to the Culture Center and back. It ran continuously from 6:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., save for a 20-minute break at 11 a.m. for the bus driver to take lunch.
This year, to save money, that service has been replaced by a state-owned shuttle van intended primarily to transport state employees. It runs for a couple of hours in the morning, shutting down at 9:15 a.m., then runs briefly at lunch hour, and then for a couple of hours more at quitting time.
So, if a group gets to Laidley Field at 10 a.m. with the intent of attending an 11 o’clock floor session, there’s no bus in sight, and not everyone can make that ¾-mile walk to the Capitol comfortably, especially in bad weather.
C’mon guys, if we’ve got $100 million laying around for tax breaks for out-of-state corporate barons, we can surely dig up a few thousand to run a proper shuttle service during legislative sessions.