It seems like only yesterday that I was using this space to emulate longtime Daily Mail political columnist Richard Grimes with his annual 30th day of the legislative session lament that the session is half over and nothing has happened yet.
Now, here we are one day past Crossover Day — the 50th day of the session and the last day for each house to act on bills originating in that house — and if Richard were here, he’d be lamenting there’s not much of an agenda left to fill the final nine days of the 2020 regular session.
That’s not to say that Senate leadership didn’t intend to have a busier end of the session, before seeing major initiatives to shift tax burden from manufacturers to taxpayers and to eliminate the $17 million state subsidy for greyhound racing purses and breeders funds crash and burn. But more on that Sunday.
That’s also not to say there aren’t some important bills still alive after Crossover Day.
Legislation increasing reimbursements for foster care families (House Bill 4092) and to continue and strengthen the foster care ombudsman (House Bill 4094) are crucial.
Likewise, legislation to expand Medicaid coverage to include dental care is much needed in a state with such poor dental health (Senate Bill 648).
The 2020 session also might be notable as the time the Legislature took its first toddler steps toward a renewable energy future, with legislation to encourage power companies to develop solar energy facilities (Senate Bill 583).
However, going through the bills still alive after Crossover Day, which will be up for consideration in the final nine days of the session, is not a particularly inspirational exercise.
This being an election year, there are a number of bills that could be described as pandering to constituents, particularly the God-and-guns crowd.
I count at least six bills either weakening gun safety regulations or reducing gun licensing fees.
That includes a bill to remove the last vestiges of common-sense gun safety measures for municipalities, to prevent cities from prohibiting firearms at outdoor events such as Charleston’s Live on the Levee or Foam at the Dome (Senate Bill 96).
(On dollar beer nights at Watt Powell Park, as the crowd became rowdy, Wheeler Bob would tell them, “Be sure and come back tomorrow for handguns and hard liquor night.” Who knew that was a prophecy, and not a punchline?)
There also are bills to allow firearms in vehicles parked on public school grounds (Senate Bill 482) and repealing a prohibition on the roadside public display and sale of weapons (House Bill 4618).
We also have dueling House and Senate versions of bills allowing elective Bible classes in public schools (Senate Bill 38 and House Bill 4780), despite a whole host of legal and practical issues, including one raised by Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, that certain portions of the Bible containing R-rated material are not suitable for children.
Arguably, the “Tim Tebow Bill” (Senate Bill 131) and a similar bill in the House (House Bill 3127), to allow home-schooled and/or private and parochial school students to participate in public school sports and extracurricular activities, is appealing to that same audience.
Then there’s the bill that would say a kid who answers a science test question by saying the world is 10,000 years old couldn’t flunk the test if that’s his religious belief (House Bill 4069).
Other bills still alive this session could fit into categories including fossil fuel industry tax breaks, including legislation to expand tax cuts for power companies that keep operating coal-fired plants (Senate Bill 793), as well as ALEC-backed bills to de-license professions and to make it easier to classify workers as independent contractors. After all, what says low pay and no benefits better than “unlicensed independent contractor”?
Meanwhile, every session has its share of bills that are simply head-scratchers as to why they are even here.
Bills fitting that description still alive this session include legislation mandating the teaching of cursive writing in elementary school (House Bill 4089), allowing individuals to brew small quantities of moonshine for personal consumption (House Bill 4158) and outlawing eyeball tattooing (House Bill 4161, since we need to crack down on that epidemic of people with colored eyeballs).
It’s worth pointing out that Crossover Day is a fairly recent legislative invention.
Prior to 1987, there was no formal cutoff date for each house to complete work on bills originating in that chamber.
Contrary to popular belief, I haven’t been covering the Statehouse forever, so the lack of a Crossover Day predates my experience, although I’ve heard stories about the chaotic last nights of the session, with massive logjams of bills taken up in the final hours and minutes before midnight.
That led to the saying coined by former House speaker Clyde See, “Fat possums move late at night.”
He meant that, in the havoc of the last night, legislators were passing bills without having the opportunity to vet their contents, resulting in passage of bills containing provisions benefiting particular constituencies or directing pork-barrel spending, or both.
Beginning with the 1987 session, the Legislature set the 53rd day of the session as Crossover Day, which reduced — but did not eliminate — the logjam on the final night.
It essentially assured that the Legislature would be in session on the next-to-last Saturday of the regular session, that being the 53rd day. After taking Sunday off — primarily to give legislative attorneys time to go over bills arriving from the other house — that left only six days to act on the other house’s bills.
Since it was unheard of back then to give bills a single committee reference, bills would go to minor committees on Monday and Tuesday, and on to a second reference in Finance or Judiciary committee on Wednesday and Thursday.
That left no room for error — if a bill were left off a committee agenda or if a committee could not get to a bill in the course of its extended workday, odds of passage became very slim.
With virtually all committee reports reaching the floor on Wednesday and Thursday, that still resulted in bills stacking up for passage votes on the final day of each session.
In 2004, the Legislature again changed its rules to push Crossover Day back to the 50th day.
I was around for that change and, while not idyllic, it has been a notable improvement, expanding the time window to work on bills from the other house by at least 50%, assuming legislators take the 54th day (Sunday) off.
That extra time has turned the last day of the session from chaotic to frequently underwhelming, with the last night most often padded with interim study resolutions and floor speeches to carry the session to its conclusion at midnight.
When it comes to the legislative process, boring is good.
Ideally, I’d like to see Crossover Day pushed back even more, perhaps to the 45th day, for greater transparency, but there doesn’t seem to be any momentum for that.