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Statehouse Beat: As time marches on, historic buildings need upgrades

No bid solicitations have been posted yet for construction of a new elevator in the Governor’s Mansion, as approved by the Capitol Building Commission earlier this month.

The request from General Services for the elevator upgrade seems to confirm one reason why Gov. Jim Justice doesn’t live at the mansion, and also raises some troubling points about the architecture of the Capitol Complex.

Have to confess, I was mistaken in my assumption that there was no elevator in the mansion, being under the impression (like other visitors to the mansion) that the existing elevator functions as a dumbwaiter.

Given that it’s about the size of a small hall closet, it’s understandable why even the mildly claustrophobic would be reluctant to ride it. It’s also impractical for a group to have to take turns, one by one, to use it.

Most significantly, the current elevator is not wheelchair accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Looking back, it is unfortunate that both the Governor’s Mansion and state Capitol were designed without making any accommodations for persons with disabilities.

For its first 70 years or so, people in wheelchairs had to undergo the indignity of being driven into one of the Capitol’s loading docks in order to access their Statehouse.

When Walter Martens designed the Governor’s Mansion and Cass Gilbert designed the Capitol, it never occurred to them that less-than-able-bodied people would have any reason to be in either building. (Even with the installation of ramps on the East and West wings and other improvements, there are still parts of the Capitol that are inaccessible by wheelchair.)

Regardless of where Justice domiciles himself, upgrading the mansion to include an ADA-accessible elevator is the right thing to do.

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Speaking of the Capitol Building Commission, legislation originating in House Judiciary to give the nine-member panel more power is probably a good idea.The bill stems from the uproar over the $3.7 million the state Supreme Court spent to renovate and refurbish justices’ offices — renovations that were never presented to the commission for its approval.

The commission has authority under the law that created it to review and approve or reject any substantial physical changes to buildings or grounds of the Capitol Complex, including “public meeting rooms, hallways and grounds.”

Being good lawyers, the court interpreted that language to be a loophole exempting private areas, including offices, from review — something the legislation would clarify is not the case. Without commission oversight, the court renovations varied wildly from Gilbert’s original design, including the office that looks like an ice castle.

At the other extreme, I don’t think the intent is that nothing can be modified from Gilbert’s original design. Senators’ offices on the West Wing, for instance, were recently renovated with such niceties as indirect lighting, which wasn’t a thing in 1932.

Indeed, if we’re going to enforce Gilbert’s designs literally, the only legislators who had offices in the Capitol originally were the Senate president and House speaker, and I think most legislators would find it uncomfortable to have to go back to the days of working from their desks in chambers.

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Former Sen. Richard Ojeda learned this week that, just as you can’t unring a bell, you can’t take back a resignation.Why Ojeda was surprised that Gov. Justice appointed Paul Hardesty, who for years had essentially been on the Justice payroll as a lobbyist, as his replacement is baffling.

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Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee looked like deer caught in the headlights last week when they appeared to discover mid-meeting that Sen. Patricia Rucker‘s bill ostensibly to authorize the issuance of a pro-adoption state license plate actually calls for state-issued “Choose Life” plates. Apparently, there may be more surprises on the way this week, with the introduction of what is ominously being referred to as an “omnibus” teacher pay raise bill.

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Finally, regular readers know my strong dislike for bill introduction stories. In any given regular session, there will be somewhere between 1,700 and 2,000 bills introduced, of which only about 10 percent to 15 percent will survive the legislative process and become law. Many will never even make it to a committee hearing.I soured on bill introduction stories early on in my tenure, back when The Associated Press did a daily bill introduction roundup (which served a useful purpose in the pre-internet era). Over time, however, it devolved into something of a “goofiest bill of the day” serial, and gave daily publicity to otherwise low-wattage legislators like Randy Schoonover.

My maxim has been, “Any idiot can introduce a bill,” and that was proved again last week when a trio of knuckleheads (who shall not get the publicity they crave here) announced plans to introduce legislation to divert $10 million of state revenue surplus to fund Trump’s hyperbolic border wall.

Clearly, it was a shameless play to the base of supporters who prefer to have complex policy issues reduced to three-word chants, and it clearly would be unconstitutional, as the West Virginia Constitution specifically outlines how state funds can and cannot be appropriated (Art. 6, Sect. 51).

While it is disappointing that legislators (even freshmen who don’t know what they’re doing) proposed an unconstitutional bill, it was more disappointing that the House promoted the bill through an official press release, and most disappointing that many state media wasted space or airtime giving the legislators their sought-after publicity.

In some ways, it harkens back to longtime statehouse reporter Tom Miller‘s “shiny object” theory. He posited that reporters tend to be drawn to bills on road kill, raw milk, or border wall donations because they’re fun and easy to write, as opposed to researching dry, complicated technical issues such as the potential costs and benefits of a tax cut bill, reorganization of departments or agencies, or similar complex matters.

Back in the day, it would have been easy enough to put the delegates’ release into File 13 and be done with it. (Or, in the immortal words of then-AP correspondent Andy Gallagher as we once left a dull, late-evening committee meeting, facing the prospect of missing happy hour at the Red Carpet to file our stories: “If none of us writes about this, it didn’t happen.”)

In the era of social media, that gatekeeper function is short-circuited. Even as we try to filter out the nonsensical of a legislative session, it will find a forum on Twitter and Facebook, and probably a dozen other social media apps that I don’t know about.

The silver lining to this particular story is that public reaction to the delegates’ proposal appears to be strong and almost entirely negative.

When I did my little segment on “Steve Novotney Live” on WKKX radio in Wheeling Thursday, he indicated that callers had been burning up his phone lines to express their anger over the proposed $10 million giveaway, and offering suggestions on better ways for the state to spend $10 million (with paving secondary roads topping the list).

Apparently, the blowback was so severe that House leadership put out a second press release the next day on Delegate Gary Howell‘s “No slow Ohio drivers in the left lane” bill in hopes of taking some of the publicity (and heat) away from the border wall proposal.

(Justice seemed to get similar blowback on Twitter in the midst of that uproar after he tweeted that Trump is right about border security, and remarkably, blamed the state’s opioid drug crisis on border crossings.)

Perhaps we can find a teachable moment here.

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@wvgazettemail.com,

304-348-1220 or follow

@PhilKabler on Twitter.

Funerals for Friday, August 23, 2019

Boggess, Robert - 11 a.m., Cunningham-Parker-Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Conway, Blanch - 2 p.m., Hafer Funeral Home, Elkview.

Marker, Geraldine - 1 p.m., Curry Funeral Home, Alum Creek.

Pritt, Charles - 1 p.m., Gauley Bridge Baptist Church.

Quehe, Ryker - Noon, Casdorph & Curry Funeral Home, St. Albans.

Warren, Joyce - 2 p.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Hurricane.