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Statehouse Beat: Legislative interim meetings mere shadow of itself

So, this is what has become of the once-proud tradition of legislative interim meetings, where legislators met monthly for three full days in the offseason to analyze issues, hear from experts and draft legislation for the next regular session.

When legislators return to Charleston Monday, the totality of May interims will consist of but three meetings, starting at 9 a.m. and finishing by noon: The Commission on Special Investigations (which meets mostly in executive session), the Joint Committee on Flooding, and the Joint Committee on Government and Finance (the only interim committee required by law to meet). That’s it.

Granted, the truncated interims are to free up time for the resumption of the special session Monday afternoon, and if necessary, on Tuesday.

However, under Republican leadership, the Legislature has shrunk the interim meeting schedule to a mere shadow of itself, reducing it from three days to two, and reducing the number of months when interims are held.

It’s done under the auspices of cutting costs, particularly after the first two sessions under GOP control ended up slogging into two long budget impasses stretching into June, and costing taxpayers close to $1.5 million in extra legislative costs.

However, in the name of cost-cutting, the Legislature is sacrificing the noble intent of interim meetings: To allow a citizen legislature to be able to study issues comprehensively in the offseason, recognizing that it is impossible to get up to speed on complex issues and reach consensus on resolutions of matters in a 60-day session.

Ironically, a topic as complex and divisive as comprehensive public education reform (or “betterment”) would seem ideally suited for a year of interim study, as opposed to attempting to rush something through during a brief special session.

Imagine if the Legislature took the time to break down each of the elements of the reform proposals, bringing in experts (and not just paid advocates for one side) to analyze the costs and benefits of each option.

Between now and January, under that scenario, the Legislature might just reach consensus on a plan that might actually improve education outcomes statewide.

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That the resumption of the special session Monday will address bills that were vetoed for technical errors, and not education reform, speaks volumes about leadership’s inability to reach such a consensus.

For opponents of proposals such as charter schools and education saving accounts, time is on their side.

Motions to suspend the constitutional requirement that bills be read on three separate days require a four-fifths majority, meaning that without an agreement going in, the special session on education would take at minimum five days — at $35,000 a day for legislative pay and expenses alone.

One amendment to the legislation could extend the session for days longer, with each day harkening back to those dreary and costly months of budget impasses.

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Legislative leadership would have us believe there is great urgency to address weaknesses in the public education system.

However, according to the latest installment of U.S. News and World Report’s annual Best States survey, West Virginia arguably has more pressing weaknesses.

The state ranked dead-last 50th in two categories: economy (which is surprising, since corporate tax cuts, right-to-work and prevailing wage made us, in the words of former Senate President Bill Cole, “a place that businesses, the job creators, want to locate”), and infrastructure (a category measuring quality of roads, public transportation, power grids and broadband internet). Few West Virginia drivers would argue with that ranking.

The state also slipped from 44th to 48th in the nation in health care.

Education, by comparison, ranked 44th, although that ranking was a measure of education outcomes from preschool through college.

One could posit that the ongoing exodus of our best and brightest to find suitable employment elsewhere because of those 50th rankings contributes to the 44th place rank in education. You can’t blame the teacher if her best students happen to be in North Carolina and Ohio.

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Must say I agree with readers who questioned why taxpayers have footed $27,000-plus to date in legal expenses for Gov. Jim Justice‘s challenge of a petition to compel him to abide by the Constitution and reside in Charleston during his term as governor.

This is not a case where the authority of the office of governor is being challenged, or an attempt to establish a legal precedent.

Justice is flaunting the Constitution as a matter of personal preference, and if he wants to mount a legal challenge to a writ directing him to follow the law, he probably should be paying for it himself.

Given the mounting evidence that Justice’s inattentiveness to his duties as governor have contributed to many of the misadventures of this administration (flood relief, secondary roads, budget impasses, lack of consensus on education reform), Delegate Isaac Sponaugle‘s motion for a writ of mandamus may be more timely than ever.

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Speaking of Justice, the latest word is that there are big doings going on up on the 8th floor of Building 3, home to Bray Cary‘s venerable Communications Hub.

I’ve written previously about how the communications divisions of the Governor’s Office and Department of Commerce were merged and transmogrified into a news operation producing news packages designed to “create positive messages for the governor and his administration.”

Seems that there’s two big changes of late. One is that the Communications Hub’s services are now available to any executive branch agency at no charge. (Previously, agencies were billed for services rendered.)

The other is that the hub is redoubling its efforts as a digital content provider for social media and mobile, with Cary declaring that people no longer get their news from traditional media (So why are you reading this?) and that the Communications Hub will step in to become a content provider.

To that end, Cary promoted Andy Malinoski, who has been with Commerce for about six months but has extensive private-sector marketing experience (ironically including a stint with the Gazette), to oversee the push into digital media.

I gather his first content publishing endeavor will be something called the “Daily 304,” a brief, 4-minute audio clip, to be updated daily.

Sounds like a daily audio version of the Governor’s Office’s hilariously upbeat “West Virginia Week in Review” releases. The week we learned the Public Integrity section of the Department of Justice was investigating Justice and Forbes magazine published the “Deadbeat Billionaire” article, for instance, the highlights in the release included Justice awarding $8 million in federal grants, and reading to fourth graders for “Let’s Read West Virginia Day.”

Given the money that the state is spending to put a positive spin on the governor, Justice manages to generate a remarkable amount of negative publicity.

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Finally, to that end, Justice seemingly went off script last week, given his BFF’s vehement hatred of wind power, with a statement effusively praising the announcement by a California company to build a $150 million wind power farm in Mineral and Grant counties:

“My administration is committed to finding every possible way to enhance energy production in West Virginia, and the Black Rock Wind Farm is the perfect example of a project that will be a win-win in many ways. Not only will the project harness West Virginia’s inexhaustible wind for clean energy production, it will bring good-paying jobs during construction and then, once it’s built, this wind farm will continue to stimulate our economy for years to come.”

At approximately the same time, in a speech to Connecticut natural gas suppliers, Donald Trump railed against the Green New Deal in general, and wind power in particular.

Trump’s hatred of windmills surfaces regularly in speeches, and evidently stems from an unsuccessful battle to keep a wind farm from locating near a Trump golf course in Scotland.

In last week’s speech, Trump hit on some common tropes, one being the supposed unreliability of wind power: “When the wind doesn’t blow you don’t watch television that night ... Your wife says, “What the hell did you get me into with this Green New Deal, Charlie?”

He also claimed that wind turbines kill birds, which is true, but he failed to point out that cats are much more effective bird killers, dispatching about 10 times as many birds each year as windmills. In past speeches, Trump has claimed without evidence that the noise from windmills can cause cancer.

It would be interesting to see how Justice reconciles his fondness for wind power the next time he meets with Trump, particularly as he continues to push the rather wacky idea of having the federal government subsidize coal-fired power plants in the East, as some sort of national security measure.

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

Funerals for Saturday, August 24, 2019

Barron, Dennis - 11 a.m., Airborne Church, Martinsburg.
Baylor, Elizabeth - 1 p.m., Snodgrass Funeral Home, South Charleston.
Bonds Jr., Patrick - 1 p.m., King of Glory International Ministries, Charleston.
Burgess, Corey - 5 p.m., Aldersgate United Methodist Church.
Burns, Helen - 11 a.m., Stump Funeral Home & Cremation, Inc., Grantsville.
Caldwell, Gary - 6 p.m., Long & Fisher Funeral Home, Sissonville.
Casto, Carroll - 1 p.m., Raynes Funeral Home, Eleanor.
Casto, Roger - 2 p.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Winfield.
Duty, Fred - 2 p.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.
Fisher, Bernard - 2 p.m., Waybright Funeral Home, Ripley.
Gwinn, Lloyd - Noon, Church of Christ, Craigsville.  
Habjan, Nathan - 1 p.m., Wilson-Smith Funeral Home, Clay. 
Hall, Daniel - Noon, Witcher Baptist Church.
Hinkle, Ethel - Noon, Church of Christ, Craigsville.  
Hoffman, Bruce - 2 p.m., Foglesong - Casto Funeral Home, Mason.  
Kinder, Siegel - 1 p.m., Leonard Johnson Funeral Home, Marmet.
Kyler, Virgil - 11 a.m., Pleasant Grove Cemetery, Reedy.
Palmer, William - 1 p.m., Barlow Bonsall Funeral Home, Charleston. 
Raynes Sr., Steven - 1 p.m., Tyree Funeral Home, Oak Hill.
Truman, James - 2 p.m., Newton Baptist Church, Newton.
Turner, Keith - Noon, Full Gospel Assembly,  Huntington. 
Webb, Antoinette - 11 a.m., SS Peter and Paul Catholic Church, Oak Hill.
Wilson, Greg - Noon, Roach Funeral Home, Gassaway.
Withrow, James - 1 p.m., Cooke Funeral Home Chapel, Cedar Grove.