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Statehouse Beat: Public hearings suggest disconnect between lawmakers, citizens

The House of Delegates holds a public hearing on the education omnibus bill on the evening of Monday, Feb. 11, in the House chamber at the state Capitol.

There’s been a real sense of disconnect this session, perhaps exacerbated by having the Capitol rotunda walled off for repairs.

The disconnect was particularly strong last Monday, during three public hearings in the House of Delegates, two on the omnibus education bill (SB 451) and one on legalizing conceal carry on college campuses (HB 2519).

For the campus carry hearing, House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, called three opponents of the bill to speak for every one proponent. Even with that 3-to-1 ratio, he ultimately ran out of supporters wishing to speak.

Opponents included a wide range of college administrators, students, parents, and law enforcement officers; proponents largely were members of either the West Virginia Citizens’ Defense League or the National Rifle Association.

The ratio of opponents to supporters on the omnibus education bill was even larger, with many of the proponents representing “astroturf” organizations, including the state chapters of Americans for Prosperity and the State Policy Network, both of which are affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

Granted, turnout at public hearings is not a statistically accurate way of determining support or opposition for an issue, and good legislation isn’t necessarily whatever happens to be most popular.

Still, that the Legislature would pursue bills that are so clearly opposed by so many suggests a real tone-deafness or disconnect between members and their constituents.

Speaking of, during much of the debate on the omnibus education bill, proponents of the Senate version kept referring to a report card that ranks West Virginia 47th in public education.

Kudos to Rebecca Speakman, a teacher in Marion County, who determined that the report in question is the Report Card on American Education, produced by ALEC.

Not only that, but of the seven categories used to assess the overall ranking, three were: Charter Schools, Home School Regulation Burden and Private School Choice Programs.

Speakman also compared West Virginia with South Carolina, which ranked 12th in the ALEC report card.

West Virginia had a higher grade for State Academic Standards (B-plus to C-plus), had higher per-pupil spending ($11,987 to $8,935), a higher high school graduation rate (85 percent to 79 percent) and smaller average class size (13.9 to 15.4).

Alas, West Virginia’s zero scores for charter schools and private school choice dropped it far behind South Carolina in purported quality of education.

In her presentation, Speakman notes, “If the senators were using this rank as a way to communicate West Virginia’s charter school, home school, private school and ESA grade, I don’t think that anyone would disagree with the statement or rank — which is why they are not presenting the rank in this way. They are presenting the rank of 47th in the nation as the grade of our existing public education performance in comparison to other states’ performance. That is a lie, fraudulent, and shameful manipulation of data.”

•••

One thing that stood out at former Supreme Court Justice Allen Loughry’s sentencing Wednesday: U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver ordered Loughry to pay $1,273 in restitution. $1,273? I’ve seen bigger payouts from video lottery machines at the Red Carpet!Loughry basically ruined his career to save some wear-and-tear on his personal vehicle, to get a couple of fill-ups on the state tab, real nickel-and-dime stuff.

That Loughry had gained so little from his misdeeds tied Judge Copenhaver’s hands in terms of federal sentencing guidelines. Copenhaver did about all he could to bump up Loughry’s sentence, citing his lack of remorse and the fact he continued to lie during his testimony at trial, including continuing to claim he knew nothing of the history of the antique “Cass Gilbert” desk he had “borrowed” from the court to furnish his home office.

My copy of Loughry’s “Don’t Buy Another Vote, I Won’t Pay for a Landslide,” which has either disappeared or been buried under stacks of paper here on my pressroom desk, would have come in handy this week.

However, as I recall, Loughry wrote with a tone of superiority, as if only he were daring enough to publish a compilation of the state’s long history of corruption; and to offer his recommendations for cleaning up politics, as if only he were capable of proposing solutions to end corruption in the state.

Ultimately, Loughry’s biggest crime was hubris. He not only thought he was above the law, but thought he could get away with it, unlike many of the subjects of his book.

(Ironically, in a 2006 Charleston Daily Mail interview previewing release of the book, Loughry said he had written it in encyclopedic form so he could continually update it “with the latest shameful government controversies.”)

•••

You can call Delegate Eric Porterfield, R-Mercer, a lot of things, but hypocrite isn’t one of them. You cannot say as much of his colleagues, some of whom have condemned his homophobic diatribes in committee and in a series of media interviews, but have — five times so far this session — blocked a floor vote on legislation to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state Human Rights Act (HB 2733).Yes, one could argue those votes were strictly procedural to uphold protocol, and to not allow the committee process to be short-circuited — although given that the Senate trashed the committee process in order to keep its version of the omnibus education bill alive, the committee process isn’t quite as sacrosanct as it used to be.

However, under the circumstances — Porterfield’s original comments came in support of an amendment offered by Delegate Dean Jeffries, R-Kanawha, to nullify LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinances in municipalities — bringing the bill to the House floor would seem an appropriate response to the controversy that, in the words of Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, would “have turned this body into a national embarrassment.”

Seemingly, the best way to denounce Porterfield’s words and actions would be to extend basic human rights protections to a community that he finds so reprehensible that he intimated he would drown his children if he learned they were gay.

••••••

I stated that disciplining Porterfield represented Roger Hanshaw’s first real test as House speaker, and to date, his response has been dismal.Beyond a private meeting that evidently failed to put the fear of God into Porterfield, since he came out of the session spouting the same hateful rhetoric as before, there has been no real discipline of Porterfield — no loss of committee assignments, no demand for a public apology, no public reprimand (since I was advised that procedurally, censure would be out of order).

(Perhaps the best speaker of the House that I’ve covered, Chuck Chambers, recognized that the most effective punishment for out-of-control delegates was to revoke parking privileges or reassignment to the smallest, most distant office spaces.)

More tellingly, Hanshaw’s biography notes that he is a certified professional parliamentarian, and as such, leads us to believe it was no accident that he gave the bill a double committee reference. The first committee assignment was the relatively obscure Industry and Labor Committee (presumably, the connection being that equal opportunity for employment is one of the anti-discrimination protections in the Human Rights Act.)

Conveniently, Industry and Labor is chaired by Delegate Tom Fast, R-Fayette, who has long been outspoken in his opposition to extending human rights protections to the LGBTQ community.

Some of Fast’s rhetoric has been almost as inflammatory as Porterfield’s. In a 2016 floor speech, Fast stated, “Once homosexual, bisexual and transgender behavior is elevated to a protected status, there is nothing to stop bigamy, pedophilia or any other sexual practice from receiving the same protection.”

By assigning the bill to Fast’s committee, Hanshaw and House leadership have assured that the bill will not see the light of House chambers this session.

Surely, Hanshaw has read the Declaration of Policy of the Human Rights Act, which goes, in part, “Denial of rights to properly qualified persons ... is contrary to principles of freedom and equality of opportunity and is a disservice to a free and democratic society.”

•••

Finally, I have to admit I hadn’t closely followed the legislation to allow the sale or trade of parts of carcasses of fur-bearing animals since back when it was the topic of much ridicule in print and social media for its inclusion of the baculum (or penile bone) as one of the bodily parts that could be legally sold or traded under the bill. Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, even referenced the bill in a floor speech as an example of some of the trivialities that were distracting the House from addressing matters of real concern. I did not notice until the bill’s final passage vote in the Senate on Friday that somewhere in the legislative process, baculum had been removed from the final version of the bill (HB 2521).I guess you could say the bill was de-boned.

(I have to say, I got on the Google machine to find out why humans don’t have bacula, and I would urge others not to make the same mistake.)

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@wvgazettemail.com,

304-348-1220 or follow

@PhilKabler on Twitter.