Going into what portends to be one of the most divisive legislative sessions in modern history, plans to restrict public and media access to legislators are troubling.
Technically, the Capitol remains closed to the public — even though public schools were ordered to resume in-classroom teaching last week — with individuals admitted in order to attend scheduled meetings, or by appointment to conduct business in state offices.
I heard from lobbyists who were irate that they were turned away from the Capitol for the organizational day of the 2021 legislative session Jan. 13.
Statehouse observers speculate that, with lobbyists having limited access to legislators at the Capitol, we’re likely to see a resurgence this session of old-school dinner and drinks expenditures as lobbyists entertain legislators after hours.
Granted, there are legitimate concerns about opening the Capitol for the legislative session.
Even in non-pandemic years, the Capitol functions as a petri dish for germs and viruses as people pour in from all corners of the state and pack themselves into confined corridors and meeting rooms. The likelihood of coming down with something, be it a cold, flu or just feeling blah, is so commonplace during legislative sessions that there’s an expression for it: “Capitol crud.”
It was perfectly reasonable for legislative leadership to cancel the various activity days at the legislature this session, days that bring in additional crowds to set up displays that fill the great hallways outside the House and Senate chambers for things like history day, tourism day, etc.
However, restricting the ability of constituents to come face-to-face with their legislators is undemocratic.
In 2018 and 2019, teachers and school service personnel from around the state filled the Capitol to peacefully but exuberantly make their demands heard for better pay and stable health care benefits and to oppose programs such as charter schools.
Though Republican majorities in both houses were not particularly friendly toward teachers, they recognized how influential they are, and in both sessions, buckled under to demands for pay raises, some semblance of stability for PEIA, while advancing a much-watered down charter schools bill that, to date, has yet to produce an operating charter school in the state.
In a session when Republican supermajorities almost certainly will advance legislation to make it a breeze to open charter schools statewide while expanding other anti-public schools proposals such as school vouchers, circumstances will make it awfully convenient to carry out those actions in a vacuum.
Similarly, the House of Delegates on Jan. 13 changed rules for public hearings on bills, pushing them back to as late as immediately prior to passage votes on the legislation.
Previously, upon request for a public hearing, committee chairpeople could not proceed with action on any bill until a hearing had taken place.
As West Virginia Citizen Action Group Executive Director Gary Zuckett noted, when public hearings are held so late in the legislative process, “It pretty much makes them a therapeutic session.”
For the 2021 regular session, committee chairpeople are also given the option of conducting public hearings using remote video teleconferencing technology and, technically, are not obligated to call hearings even if requested.
Additionally, reporters will have less access to legislative floor sessions, committee meetings and legislators this session, as press passes will have even less value than usual, providing access only to House and Senate galleries, without floor privileges.
We’ve seen how Gov. Jim Justice has been able to manipulate media coverage by limiting reporters’ access to COVID-19 remote teleconferences, which are entirely controlled by the governor’s office.
That eliminates the most critical aspect of the interview process, the follow-up question. The opportunity to ask for clarification, call out an evasive answer or request additional detail is crucial and impossible under the current format.
Justice’s staffers have cut off the microphones of reporters attempting follow-up questions.
It will be interesting to see how long it will be after Justice has declared it safe for students to return to classrooms before he deems it safe to hold in-person news briefings. The longer it goes, the more teleconferences are about manipulating the media and the message and less about public health and safety.
Likewise, edicts by legislative leaders to restrict public and media access to the legislative session might have less to do with public health and more to do with stifling dissenting viewpoints.
(After all, a majority of House members voted against a motion requiring that facemasks be worn properly during floor sessions.)
In a session when transparency and scrutiny is paramount, that is troubling.
As I’ve said before, for such a physically big person, Justice can be a little, little man.
Justice has made no secret of his displeasure with leaders of the West Virginia Education Association and American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, who in the 2020 gubernatorial race, endorsed and campaigned for his opponent, Ben Salango.
Asked during his Jan. 6 COVID-19 briefing whether he consulted with union leadership before ordering a return to in-classroom teaching, Justice sneered, “The teachers unions ran off and supported my opponent and lost every single county in the state … There’s no point in me talking to the union leaders.”
Then, at his briefing Thursday, regarding petitions filed by both unions for injunctions to block in-person teaching, Justice said to state teachers: “I’ve no earthly clue why you’re still trying to cling to union leaders who took you down the wrong path.”
(Wrong path, presumably, being not supporting him.)
Come to find out, however, that Justice’s vindictiveness does not stop with snide comments about union leaders.
Since the election, Justice has removed WVEA President Dale Lee and AFT-WV political director Kris Mallory from the state Public Employees Grievance Board.
Given that the Grievance Board is a five-member organization, made up of two employee representatives, two employer representatives and one citizen member, that means the current configuration of the board is tilted in favor of employers.
Not ideal if you’re a public employee with a grievance hearing pending.
(No matter how strong Justice’s distaste for teachers unions, by law, one of the employee representatives must represent the largest public employee labor union in the state, and the other employee representative must represent an education employee organization, so Justice’s hands are tied when it comes to appointing replacements.)
Not only that, but Justice removed David Haney, who retired as WVEA executive director Jan. 1, from the West Virginia Investment Management Board, a position Haney had held from the board’s inception in 1997.
It’s not the first time Justice has reacted badly after getting his feelings hurt over politics.
He removed long-serving state Racing Commission Chairman Jack Rossi when he learned Rossi was serving as treasurer of the Salango campaign.
Quote of the week: “He’s a good man with a lotta, lotta, lotta great family around him.” — Justice on Donald Trump, unable to utter a harsh word about Trump’s latest and last failure as president, the abject disaster that has been the national rollout of COVID-19 vaccine doses.
West Virginia has capacity to provide more than 100,000 vaccinations a week, but to date, has been receiving an average of fewer than 25,000 doses a week. An expected shipment of 25,000 doses last week did not materialize because it turned out a supposed Trump administration reserve stockpile did not exist.
As a result, I spent much of the day Wednesday fielding calls from seniors frustrated with an unworkable call-in system for vaccine registrations. I did manage to have the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department get in touch with a 90-year-old Nitro woman befuddled by the whole process.
President Joe Biden was a little more blunt than Justice, calling the Trump vaccine plan (or lack thereof) “a dismal failure.”
Speaking of, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey didn’t wait even 24 hours before trying to cash in on the Biden presidency, with his Team Morrisey PAC sending letters out to supporters shilling for contributions for a “Defend American Jobs” campaign.
In his spiel, Morrisey pledges to fight Biden’s purportedly “radical” policies that he says will destroy energy industry jobs. (Patrick apparently is unaware coal mining employment plunged 15% during Trump’s term.)
Morrisey also says he needs cash because, “(W)e will need to grow stronger to combat the attacks of the media and radical groups. They will do anything they can to block me from doing my job.”
Sigh. I can remember when we had an attorney general who devoted his energies to consumer protection and fighting corporate corruption.
Finally, after getting lots of media and social media attention after his Greenbrier resort flaunted face mask and social distancing requirements for its New Year’s Eve festivities, Justice pushed capacity restrictions for his inaugural reception Friday at the Culture Center.
Although COVID-19 guidelines limit capacity in the center’s Great Hall to 13 people, Justice was anticipating 35-plus attendance for the invitation-only reception.
In order to get around the capacity restrictions, Culture Center employees were directed to work from home or take a personal leave day Friday.