I was reminiscing this week with a former statehouse reporter about how in the not-too-distant past, governors would not call and legislative leaders would not ask to be called into special session until they had locked in consensus on the issue or issues at hand.
We recalled how we would grouse about how all the deals had been worked out in backrooms in advance, and how special sessions themselves would play out as choreographed, with little drama.
One notable exception was in 2002, when Gov. Bob Wise called the Legislature into special session to, among other things, address the ongoing contentious issue of overweight coal trucks.
Wise brought to Charleston a Legislature divided over whether to strictly enforce weight restrictions, or to issue permits to allow trucks to run overweight on designed coal haul routes. After five days in session, after the House adopted an amendment by Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, lowering coal truck speed limits and raising the amounts on various fines, the Senate declared an impasse and adjourned sine die.
Currently, we are in the midst of a special session that, like 2002, may very well end with all sides throwing their hands up and declaring an impasse, but with no clear indication of how many days the session may drag on before reaching that demise.
Part of the reason is that, unlike their predecessors, Gov. Jim Justice and legislative leaders didn’t hash out an agreement before entering into the special session.
Justice, admittedly not a “hands on” governor, called the special session back in March with broad instructions to come up with a plan for education “betterment” in light of the collapse of the Senate’s omnibus public school privatization act.
Yet, what the Senate passed last week looks very much like the failed omnibus education bill, despite a seeming consensus from public hearings around the state that most teachers, administrators and parents see no value in such items as charter schools or education savings accounts.
I thought Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, had a marvelous comment when she said it’s not that Senate leadership didn’t listen to the public’s concerns, they just chose to ignore them: “Listening is not the same as agreeing.”
Besides charter schools, Senate leaders could not contain their strong disdain for the state teachers’ unions — and the impact they have had in reinvigorating a labor movement nationally — long enough to avoid poisoning the new omnibus bill with some anti-union and anti-teacher provisions.
I think one could make a strong argument that just as passage of right-to-work and prevailing wage laws were less about economic development and more about union-busting, the omnibus bill’s primary goal is not necessarily education reform.
For all of Senate President Mitch Carmichael’s promises to build bipartisan support for the bill, even to the point where he seemed oddly confident he would be able to secure a four-fifths vote — requiring the defection of some eight Democrats — to suspend constitutional rules and pass it in a single day, the new omnibus bill was rammed through with the same 18 GOP votes as the old bill.
So, as we take the break between the Senate’s first round in special session and the House’s resumption on June 17, there seems to be no consensus in sight.
The House, which killed the regular session version of the Senate omnibus bill on a 53-45 postpone indefinitely vote, will probably be inclined to take up education reform through a series of individual bills (something Senate leadership refused to permit).
In regular session, the House came up with a compromise version of the omnibus bill, notably watering down the charter schools section to permit only two pilot schools, a proposal that Senate leadership immediately rejected.
With the House committed to working the bills in committee, the resumption of the House session will be measured, not in hours, but days, and to what end?
Justice, after wandering in to address Senate Republican and Democratic caucuses, apparently accomplishing nothing more than bewildering members from both sides of the aisle, told reporters he believes the session (sans his leadership) has hit a “very, very difficult impasse,” declaring, “All we’re doing is wasting more time, more people’s money, and more taxpayers’ dollars.”
(Knowing how much Justice enjoys personally announcing strong monthly tax collections, Senate leadership retaliated to Justice’s dis by releasing strong May revenue numbers before he could.)
In this atmosphere, it’s highly conceivable that the special session, after multiple days in session and hundreds of thousands of dollars of cost to taxpayers, will get no closer to passage of an education reform than the regular session did.
And to think we used to complain about the days when all sides worked together, and reached consensus before the special sessions gaveled in.
If you get a chance to watch the archived footage of the Senate’s resumption of the special session, be sure to watch lawyer and former federal prosecutor Sen. William Ihlenfeld’s brilliant cross examination of Rucker over a separate bill to authorize state-funded education savings accounts for private school tuition.
Part of Ihlenfeld’s line of inquiry was whether legislators could benefit from the ESAs, either personally, or as owners/investors in private schools.
Speculation about legislators benefiting personally from the omnibus education bill really took off in the regular session, when the House added language stating that no elected officials may profit or receive financial benefit from charter schools — a provision the Senate promptly deleted.
The new omnibus bill includes such a prohibition regarding charter schools, but as Rucker explained, no similar prohibition in the ESA bill, something she said could be corrected down the road.
Speaking of reminiscing, Justice’s unveiling of a new state Tourism Division advertising strategy, to feature wrap ads on commercial semis and panel trucks, reminds me of then-Senate Finance Chairman Oshel Craigo’s reaction when the state installed a “Visit West Virginia” tourism billboard on a warehouse building downtown, viewable from the interstate.
Craigo complained that the billboard was a waste of money, since those who saw it were either locals or travelers who had already been in West Virginia for at least an hour by that point.
However, given the relatively low cost — about $7,000 (about one-fifth of a Loughry couch) to wrap the first truck — if the trucks spur even a few families to consider vacationing in West Virginia, it’s probably not a total waste.
As Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby pointed out at the first truck’s unveiling, in annual national surveys measuring vacationers intent to visit specific states, West Virginia comes in very low, at 4 to 5 percent.
“The thing that concerns me most about this is not necessarily that it’s low, but that it’s been declining or been stagnant for many years,” she said at the unveiling in Mineral Wells.
(That doesn’t seem to jibe with Justice’s campaign checklist of accomplishments, which includes, “Tourism booming.” Justice may be confusing hotel occupancy rates, largely driven by gas pipeline construction workers residing in motels, with tourism.)
Finally, couple of items left over from the January-April lobbyists’ spending reports to the Ethics Commission.
As noted, the trend continues to be away from the old tradition of hosting big-dollar legislative receptions at downtown hotels.
What legislators considered fine a generation ago — imbibing and eating finger foods four nights a week — isn’t as appealing in a more health conscious time.
Receptions haven’t entirely disappeared, however, with some of the bigger ones this session being the Association of Counties, Feb. 11, $25,477; Independent Oil and Gas Association, Jan. 24, $25,445; West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, Jan. 29, $16,446; and the West Virginia Hospital Association, Feb. 11, $12,382.
As they did last year, instead of hosting a reception, members of the West Virginia Insurance Federation, as reported by lobbyist Jill Rice, split up and took legislators out to dinner Feb. 5 at the Chop House, South Hills Market, Laury’s, Noah’s, and Tidewater Grill.
Meanwhile, Brian Hoylman, a leading prevailing wage advocate representing the Associated Builders and Contractors of West Virginia, picked up one of the heftier tabs of the session, reporting paying $136.58 each for dinner for Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, and Delegate Moore Capito, R-Kanawha.
Hey Brian, for the record, I know a place in town where you can get five dinners for the price of three.