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Statehouse Beat: Reqiuem for a bad bill

Requiem for a bad bill:

As I surmised on this page three weeks ago, the omnibus education bill collapsed under its own weight, and under an atmosphere of stealth and mistrust.

Future political science classes should examine it as a case study in how not to legislate.

Stealth: As noted here previously, the nearly 140-page Senate Bill 451 was not the product of a consensus of stakeholders, but suddenly emerged as if from thin air — ALEC-cadabra.

Similarly, a strike-and-insert amendment to restore most of the onerous Senate proposals to the sanitized House version of the bill materialized some 10 minutes before the start of the floor session Monday, in what Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, described as “legislation by ambush.”

Complaints that the leadership was attempting to violate Senate rules requiring one-hour availability of amendments prompted a recess that apparently shattered Senate President Mitch Carmichael’s plan to run the amended bill through both houses in a single afternoon, before teachers could organize their opposition to the latest twist on SB 451.

Memorably, as that recess began, Carmichael called a majority caucus, stating, “In my office, now!”

(As an aside, a former legislator told me he’s appalled by what he regards as abuse of the caucus process to avoid public discourse on issues, particularly in the House, where committee Republicans and Democrats frequently hold caucuses prior to committee meetings.

He contends that allows debate on bills to take place behind closed doors, rather than in the public eye, and allows the members to put on a united front — or, at least, a less contentious front — during the open meeting.

Point well taken, but it is also worth noting that over-reliance on caucuses (cauci?) was on the rise before Republicans gained control of the Legislature, and to point out that it wasn’t that long ago that we were complaining the real decision-making of the Legislature was taking place, not at the Capitol, but evenings in the Marriott lounge.)

At any rate, the secrecy surrounding the legislation, the lack of input from stakeholders or the public (who ultimately got all of 70 seconds each in public hearings in the House) and the failure to attempt to build bipartisan support combined to doom the bill.

Distrust: Ultimately, the demise of the omnibus education bill was founded on a fundamental lack of trust by a majority of House members that the Senate would negotiate in good faith if the bill reached a House-Senate conference committee.

Most delegates remember the 2017 budget impasse, when an apparent agreement to raise revenue by eliminating several sales tax exemptions collapsed when Senate Republicans on the conference committee refused to sign the committee report.

Have to say, one would think that, after 30 sessions up here, there would be nothing new under the sun, but Tuesday was the first time I’ve seen a bill killed on the floor in either house with adoption of a motion to postpone indefinitely.

Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, was entirely accurate when, in making the PI motion, said, “I believe we need to reject this bill now. That’s what ends this strike.”

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After the 53-45 vote to kill the omnibus bill, I posted a tweet stating, “55 Strong, 1; ALEC, 0.”Leave no doubt, it was the courage and commitment of West Virginia’s teachers to again stand united that ultimately killed the bill.

Walking out two years in a row was a calculated risk, and I suspect if the strike had gone on for more than two days, some of the public goodwill from 2018 would have begun to dissipate.

Ultimately, the Senate leadership made multiple miscalculations, one being that teachers would sell out their principles for a $2,000 pay raise and some other sweeteners put into the bill.

Another was to assume that razor-thin margins of support would hold out. Senate votes were consistently 18-16, one flip away from defeat (and, of course, leadership had to short-circuit the traditional committee procedure and foist a Committee of the Whole to avoid having the bill die in Finance Committee).

When Carmichael said he was assured by House leadership there were 52 votes to pass the amended version of SB 451 when it went back to the House Tuesday, I was reminded of former Sen. Billy Wayne Bailey’s days as majority whip.

Once, when a leadership bill died on a close vote, we were giving Billy Wayne a hard time about his failure to accurately count votes, and he said he had failed to take into account what he called the “10 percent liars’ factor.”

In other words, if you’ve got a controversial vote in the House, make sure you have at least 56 votes committed.

With galleries packed with teachers Tuesday, those 52 votes turned into 45.

Again, the bill was simply too unwieldy, had too many moving parts, too many elements that were subject to strong opposition.

It will be interesting to see how Senate leadership moves forward.

It they’re truly committed to education reform, and not merely appeasing gray money interests, then they’ll put the issue into a legislative interim committee and truly study it for the remainder of the year.

Bring in experts — and not just school privatization advocates — and really examine the successes and failures of charter schools, educational savings accounts, and the like in other jurisdictions.

Since we know the ALEC report card that ranked West Virginia’s education system 47th was based on suspect measures, find studies that accurately determine the state’s ranking and outline the multiple factors for why our public schools lag behind other localities.

These issues haven’t sprung up overnight. When I entered WVU in 1977, I had been an indifferent student through much of high school, and yet, I was surprised to discover how much better prepared for college I was, compared to many of the in-state freshmen.

Meanwhile, the $2,000 question is, what will Senate leadership do with the “clean” teacher pay raise bill passed by the House? I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t see it ending well.

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Of course, after 30 sessions, I know that legislators frequently can be presented with a busload of expert testimony and scholarly analysis, and simply ignore it.The latest case in point was on Friday, when Deputy Revenue Secretary Mark Muchow — who knows more about state taxes, revenue and economics than the rest of us combined — told House Finance Committee members that a proposed $60 million a year cut in coal severance taxes will not help coal compete with cheaper, cleaner natural gas and other energy sources, and will have minimal impact on state coal production and employment.

That view was consistent with a report issued by WVU economist John Deskins, who’s not known as a raging liberal, who indicated that eliminating the severance tax entirely would not significantly improve coal sales.

Yet, the committee sided with the Coal Association’s Chris Hamilton, who did a rah-rah bit about how the bill could help 500 God-fearing miners keep their jobs.

Of course, it could also help Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray, a longtime advocate of cutting coal severance taxes and a major contributor to the 1863 PAC — a super PAC that has targeted legislative races in support of Republican candidates and last year staged a unprecedented media campaign supporting Roger Hanshaw’s election as House speaker.

It was also pointed out that the coal industry’s request for tax breaks to save miners’ jobs sounds like the kind of financial relief that the industry said it needed back during former President Barack Obama’s “war on coal” — you know, back before President Donald Trump declared, “We’re putting our great coal miners back to work.”

•••

Finally, speaking of PACs, while the current legislative leadership has generally frowned on the old practice of hosting political fundraisers in Charleston during sessions, the West Virginia Republican Legislative Committee will be an exception to the rule, hosting a fundraiser Monday at a downtown hotel. The WVRLC fundraises on behalf of Republican House candidates.

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220

or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

Funerals for Friday, August 23, 2019

Boggess, Robert - 11 a.m., Cunningham-Parker-Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Conway, Blanch - 2 p.m., Hafer Funeral Home, Elkview.

Marker, Geraldine - 1 p.m., Curry Funeral Home, Alum Creek.

Pritt, Charles - 1 p.m., Gauley Bridge Baptist Church.

Quehe, Ryker - Noon, Casdorph & Curry Funeral Home, St. Albans.

Warren, Joyce - 2 p.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Hurricane.