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Statehouse Beat: Lawmakers avoided disaster, finished strong in regular session

Adieu, 2020 regular session, we’ll hardly miss you.

However, what was shaping up to be to be a disastrous session for working people somehow managed to partially redeem itself in its closing days.

The Intermediate Appeals Court bill, a costly homage to out-of-state corporate interests, crashed and burned in the House of Delegates, thanks to the courage of legislators such as Delegate Scott Cadle, R-Mason, who stood up to the Chamber of Commerce, regardless of whether it cost him any chance for passage of his bills or even reelection.

A sweeping foster care reform package, complete with $17.9 million of funding, passed the Legislature on the last day of the session, thanks in part to a deus ex machina when Gov. Jim Justice suddenly discovered $20 million of unappropriated pension fund cash. (More on that next week).

Then, like a high schooler who’s blown off class for most of the semester and furiously starts taking on extra credit projects to bring up his grades, the Legislature on the last day managed to pass one decent health care bill after another.

There is the $100 cap on insulin co-pays, basic dental care for Medicaid recipients, creation of a Tobacco Cessation Task Force and at least three bills providing better accessibility to contraceptives.

Of course, we can’t ignore the fact that House leadership went all “Reefer Madness” on us and bottled up legislation to expedite and expand regulations for the long-pending legalization of medical cannabis — because they were bothered by language that might allow the DHHR to authorize sales of medical marijuana in leaf form. (Or, as those of us who went to college in the ’70s would call it, old school.)

Ironically, the same Legislature that put the kibosh on demon pot passed several bills relaxing state regulations on beer, wine and alcohol, including a bill passed on the last day making the entire state wet. (Dry jurisdictions, which had previously banned retail sales of liquor, may hold referendum elections to go back to being dry.)

Naturally, this being an election year, the Legislature felt compelled to cater to particular constituent groups.

That meant we got a bill allowing the teaching of elective courses on the Bible, after legislators nixed allowing other religions’ sacred texts to be included, since legislators evidently wanted to make clear that we’re intolerant of people whose beliefs differ from our own.

We also got a student religious liberty bill that originally barred teachers from flunking kids who turn in science reports stating that the Earth is 6,000 years old. Instead, as adopted, those kids can object on religious grounds over having to write that it’s actually 4.5 billion years old.

Like clockwork, we got an anti-abortion bill, although one that has no practical effect, except to give pro-lifers a warm and fuzzy feeling.

The bowing to constituent groups included passage of bills to weaken what few gun safety laws we have on the books, including a bill that will prevent municipalities from prohibiting firearms at outdoor events, events where alcohol consumption frequently occurs.

Legislators also passed a bill allowing firearms to be displayed in windows of gun stores, but fortunately, a bill to permit firearms in vehicles in school parking lots died in the House Judiciary Committee in what may have been retiring Chairman John Shott’s last gesture to sanity.

Meanwhile, two bills that would have given tax relief to corporations or the wealthy by increasing regressive taxes on the poor and working class failed, and the Legislature took its first baby steps toward a diversified energy portfolio through passage of the state’s first solar power bill, an accomplishment considering that many legislators just can’t figure out how to quit coal.

All in all, what looked to be shaping up as a disastrous session revealed some silver linings at the end.

Like that student who hustled at the end of the semester to bring his grades up, I’d give the 2020 regular session a C-minus.

•••

Unlike his counterpart in the White House, who has blustered, denied, wished away and lied his way into bumbling away any opportunity to contain the spread of the coronavirus nationally, Gov. Jim Justice came off looking positively leaderly in the state’s response to the virus.

He did it in the most Jim Justicey way possible, including making an apparently seat-of-the-pants decision to close state public schools Friday without giving a head’s up to county school superintendents.

Also, while it certainly made sense to suspend the state high school basketball tournaments to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19, Justice couldn’t do so without pointing out that the girls team he coaches, in his opinion, had a good chance to win it all had it been able to continue play.

A day later, in announcing the closure of schools, Justice still got plugs in, including: “Our state is sound, and moving in the right direction.”

Also: “I know I’m a little different because I’m all over kingdom come. I’m not hanging out here and having a party.”

Justice maintains credibility in his response to the outbreak because he has empathy. He’s genuinely concerned about those seniors and those who are immunocompromised who are at greatest risk as the virus spreads.

It is also notable that Justice is taking the matter seriously, unlike certain delegates who made jokes and feigned coughing on the House floor, while rejecting efforts to increase state funding for the coronavirus prevention and treatment efforts.

•••

Delegates John Doyle, D-Jefferson, and Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, raised objections to the secretive, behind-closed-doors nature of budget negotiations by House and Senate leadership in order to complete legislative action on the budget bill by the 60th day of the regular session.

Doyle, in particular, blamed the secrecy on the rush to complete the budget during the regular session, foregoing the traditional House-Senate budget conference in the days after the session concludes.

However, those post-regular session budget conference sessions weren’t exactly paragons of transparency, particularly in latter years.

In general, most of the negotiations took place in private, with conferees meeting briefly in public on each of the first couple days merely to close out accounts where the House and Senate versions of the budget were in agreement.

Of course, it was possible then to obtain budget side-by-sides, which showed appropriations in the House, Senate and gubernatorial versions of the budget for every line item in the budget bill, something Bates complained were not available this session.

Preparation of the state spending plan is the single most important thing the Legislature does each session, but also the most mundane. As long as there is no public demand for transparency, there’s no reason to expect the closed-door, backroom process to change.

•••

Finally, on the last night of the session, it was heartening to see a bit of détente from the partisan hostilities that have dominated sessions of late.

Traditionally, at the conclusion of legislative sessions in even-numbered years, retiring legislators have been recognized and given the opportunity to briefly address the housed. Given that those salutations traditionally happen after the session has gaveled out at midnight, the comments tend to be brief.

On Saturday, with comparatively precious little on the legislative agenda, both houses recognized retiring members throughout the evening, in part to fill time on the last day.

Most notably, that recognition included an emotional tribute to longtime Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, a former Senate Finance chairman, and his tearful response.

In the House, in a gesture brimming with class and grace, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, turned over the speaker’s dais to former speaker and current Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, for his farewell comments.

Perhaps we witnessed a first step toward a return to civility in the Legislature.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.