Without getting into the merits of the West Virginia Education Association’s pending lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of omnibus education bill 3.0, it’s long past time to have the courts revisit issues regarding legislative abuses of the single object rule of the state Constitution.
You might say the single object rule (Article 6, Section 30) is the state’s first good government measure. (It’s not unique to West Virginia; 42 other states have single object rules in their constitutions.)
Simply stated, it says bills cannot address more than one topic.
Part of it is about transparency. Multi-topic bills tend to be long and complicated, and as the bill goes through the amendment process, it makes it increasingly challenging to keep track of what provisions are in the bill.
(This was particularly true when bills existed only in ink-on-paper form. The printed word has many positives, but a search function is not one of them.)
The state Supreme Court last ruled on the issue more than 25 years ago, in a case that overturned the practice of the time of putting all state agency rules changes into a single, omnibus rules bill that frequently ran more than 1,000 pages.
The pertinent finding in that ruling states: “We hold that if there is a reasonable basis for the grouping of various matters in a legislative bill, and if the grouping will not lead to logrolling or other deceiving tactics, then the one-object rule in W.Va. Const. art. VI, sect. 30 is not violated.”
As a result of that decision, rules bills are broken up into bundles for each executive branch department.
In the intervening years since that decision, legislative leaders (both D and R) have pushed the boundaries of what constitutes that reasonable basis for grouping matters in bills.
In the case of the omnibus education bill, Senate leadership requested an advisory opinion from Attorney General Patrick Morrisey over its constitutionality, and after what clearly had to be a perfunctory review, he concluded: “All of the provisions in Senate Bill 451 relate, in one way or another, to one general subject: education reform.”
(Keep in mind that Morrisey is beholden to the same out-of-state overseers as the Senate and House leadership, so his logic could be a bit clouded.)
The omnibus education 3.0 bill that the WVEA intends to challenge (HB 206) amends or creates a whopping 49 sections of state Code, and addresses such “education reform” issues as:
n Allowing employees of charter schools to be covered by state-run PEIA health insurance.
n Providing sales tax holidays.
That technically can’t qualify as a reform, since the state already did back-to-school sales tax holidays from 2002 through 2004, a practice that was abandoned after concluding it didn’t expand retail sales, merely concentrating them over one weekend, and did not provide significant savings to families to justify the $2 million price-tag to the state in lost revenue.
n Providing $500 bonuses to teachers who use four or fewer leave days a year.
The quandary of providing incentives to discourage public employees from overusing leave days without busting the state treasury has a long history in West Virginia. There are many state employees my age who are currently facing the delightful dilemma of deciding whether to convert their unused sick days into a 6 to 8 percent bump in their pension checks, or into years of free PEIA coverage.
n Renaming the Underwood-Smith Teachers Scholarship.
Reasonable people can probably make solid arguments both for and against whether these and the myriad other topics in omnibus education 3.0 constitute true education reform.
However, the other standard established by the court is logrolling: The practice of building support for an unpopular measure by adding provisions to it to sway legislative votes, i.e., “I can’t support your bill as it stands, but if you put in these five provisions that I really want, I could vote for it.”
Arguably, the various iterations of the omnibus education bill constitute textbook cases of logrolling.
No one — not even the most ardent supporters of the omnibus bills — would argue that charter schools could have passed the Legislature as a stand-alone bill.
Thus, it was surrounded with sweeteners to make it palatable to enough Republican legislators to give enough votes for passage — pay raises, bonuses, additional funding for support services, funding subsidies for counties with fewer than 1,400 students (which may prove to be the most ill-conceived element of the legislation), changes to the School Aid formula favorable to county school boards, and the list goes on ...
Even then, it took some — how did Justice Tom McHugh describe it in the 1993 opinion? — “deceiving tactics” to get the bill passed.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, used the subterfuge of having the Senate sit as a Committee of the Whole to take up omnibus 1.0 to avoid sending it to a Senate Finance Committee where it would have died by an 8 to 9 margin.
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, proved to be even sneakier, dividing the House into four Select Committees, and then sending the omnibus bill to the one committee he had stacked with charter school supporters. That, of course, avoided sending it to a House Education Committee that had gutted omnibus 1.0 in the regular session.
If all that taken as a whole doesn’t amount to a classic case of logrolling, then the only explanation is that the laws of physics have changed, and logs no longer roll.
Of course, the WVEA challenge likely could end up in the state Supreme Court — a court that after the impeachment coup of 2018 went from 3-2 Democratic to 4-1 Republican.
The Supreme Court in 1993 consisted of some exceptional legal minds — just ask former Justice Richard Neely, he’ll tell you. The jury’s out on the current high court, one that may be guided more by ideology than legal acumen.
Finally, I’ve been literally feeling like a kid in a candy store with all the coverage and programming leading up to the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing — like most boys growing up in the ’60s, I followed the space program with religious fervor.
Since this week will be spent reminiscing about where we were during the moon landing, I figure it’s apropos to offer my recollections here.
We were visiting my grandparents in Clarksburg, something we did one week every summer, and after finally getting a color TV at home, I was disappointed to see that their set was black-and-white — until learning that the telecasts from the moon wouldn’t be in color, anyway.
During the moonwalk on the night of July 20, my grandmother kept saying she thought the whole thing was staged, and was being telecast from a desert somewhere in Arizona.
Looking back, it must have been incomprehensible to her how much the world had changed in her lifetime.
From a childhood in rural Harrison County where life had not changed significantly in 100 years, to moving into a house with electricity and indoor plumbing, to the introduction of mass-produced automobiles, motion pictures, radio, television, and going from the Wright brothers to the proliferation of air travel, to putting humans on the moon in a period of barely over 60 years — that all had to be more than what a self-proclaimed hillbilly who did not graduate high school could wrap her head around.
Four years later, I had the good fortunate to be able to assure grandma that if the moon landing was a hoax, it certainly was a remarkably elaborate one.
In 1973, I won a science contest (essay only — no science smarts involved) with the prize being a trip to Kennedy Space Center to watch the last Saturn V launch, of the Skylab space station.
Watching a launch of the most powerful machine that humankind has devised to date was a unique and memorable experience — and enough to put to rest my grandmother’s belief that that the moon missions were faked.
As a bonus, the trip involved my first overnight train trips — on so-called rainbow consist trains, made up of railcars that newly established Amtrak had inherited from private railroads, and operated in its early years in their original liveries and interior designs.
At the time, I did not realize my good fortune to be part of railroading history, and did not take the opportunity to thoroughly explore the train. (As I recall, our chaperones did not encourage a bunch of 14-year-olds to go wandering around the train.)
As is the case with all great adventures, this trip had its downside, in the form of a side-trip to Disney World, a place I’ve never cared to be.