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Statehouse Beat: The first half of the session has been slow, but that's no surprise

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Quote of the session, to date: “This is the slowest session I think I have ever seen at the Legislature.” – Administration Secretary Allan McVey.

McVey, who’s been in state government for about three years — and who before that spent close to three decades coming up to the Legislature, tracking bills and quasi-lobbying for bills as an insurance industry executive — knows of which he speaks.

No teacher walkouts. No massive protest rallies at the Capitol. No water crises. No budget impasses. And, frankly, not much in the way of a legislative agenda.

When the idea of writing occasional daily columns during the session was initially discussed, the first day I circled on my calendar was Feb. 6, in homage to longtime Daily Mail columnist Richard Grimes.

For many years, on the 30th day of the 60-day regular session, Grimes would — like clockwork — write a column that effectively went, “The session’s half over, and nothing much has happened.”

That gave Grimes, a Republican columnist for a Republican newspaper, the opportunity to goad Democratic leadership in the House, Senate and (most often) the Governor’s Mansion for lack of substantive progress a month into each session.

Granted, back in Grimes’ day, there was much more emphasis among legislators on wrapping up work each day in time for nightly receptions — especially in the first half of the session.

However, what Grimes knew, and basically ignored for purposes of that annual Day 30 column, is that the legislative process is back-loaded.

Finance committees spend the first month of the session primarily conducting budget hearings from various state agencies, a necessity to have any real comprehension of priorities for the multi-billion dollar budget they have to assemble later in the session.

The process of introducing and advancing bills through committees and the floors of each chamber is not instantaneous, nor would we want it to be.

That being said, here we are on the 30th day of the 60-day regular session. And as McVey observed, this is a particularly slow session.

•••

Election year sessions, by their nature, tend to be slow and noncontroversial. Politicians count on voters having short memories, so it wouldn’t do to pass a tax hike or controversial piece of legislation two months out from the primaries.

Instead, what you get are bills that are oftentimes of little or no substance, but play to one’s political base — or at the very least, make it appear that the Legislature is doing something. (See: “Abortion, ‘born alive’ bill.”)

(On Wednesday, the House debated at length passage of a bill to outlaw scleral tattooing, otherwise known as eyeball tattooing. Never mind that, to my knowledge, there’s not been an epidemic of eyeball tattooing in the state, nor is it likely that someone willing to have ink injected into their eyeballs would first read state code to determine if such activity is legal.

Ironically, some delegates who argued that eyeball inking is a personal freedom issue and the state should not interfere also avidly advocate for the state to intervene in women’s reproductive health decisions.)

Longtime Herald-Dispatch political reporter Tom Miller used to refer to such insignificant bills that make easy headline fodder as “shiny objects.”

•••

Perhaps the most publicized legislation currently in limbo are resolutions to roll back the personal property tax on manufacturing equipment, machinery and inventory (SJR8), and a companion resolution to also roll back personal property taxes on vehicles (SJR9).

The sticking point is proponents of the bills have yet to find a reliable revenue source to fill the $100 million a year that counties and school boards will lose under SJR8, or the devastating $400 million a year hit under SJR9 — and since it is an election year, nobody wants to raise the “T” word.

This, coming at a time when January revenue collections would have dropped the state another $13 million into the red were it not for a $20 million cash infusion from state Treasurer John Perdue and some voodoo accounting by Gov. Jim Justice.

Senate Democrats are concerned that Senate leadership intends to proceed with the legislation, knowing they don’t have the two-thirds vote needed for passage of a joint resolution, merely as a way to get Democrats on the record as voting against a tax cut — a vote that can be played for political purposes come November.

They’re hoping the gray money interests will target Democrats for opposing a tax cut — the old “tax and spend” smear — and hoping voters are unaware the tax cuts would have devastated public schools and local government operations, or that SJR8 would largely benefit out-of-state corporate interests.

Unfortunately, election-year sessions are often more about posturing and politicking than accomplishing anything substantive.

•••

Finally, the legislation that most reeks of desperation this session could be House Bill 4673, which purports to “provide procedures to ensure that no more coal-fired plants close, and long-term state prosperity is maintained.”

It would require coal-fired power plants in the state to continue to consume, at minimum, the same tonnage of coal used in 2019, and if a power company decides to shut down a coal-fired unit, it would have to get unanimous permission from the Division of Homeland Security, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Public Energy Authority, and the legislative Joint Committee on Government and Finance.

As justification for government interference into free-market decision-making, the bill plays the national security ploy, as if our power plants would be sitting ducks for terrorists if they don’t burn coal. It’s something Justice tried to pitch to the Trump White House early in his term, and even they wouldn’t buy it.

The bill also has one of the saddest word salads of patriotic mawkishness, something to the effect that keeping coal-fired power plants open would be a tribute to native sons who served in the World Wars:

“West Virginia coal has solidified its place in our country’s history for its unconditional participation and sacrifices in both World Wars by our many native sons who have bravely defended our country and by generating the power to make the steel to build the tanks and battleships that affords us the liberties and freedoms benefiting every American today.”

Yes, and Conestoga wagons made the Westward Expansion possible, yet there are no laws requiring the same levels of Conestoga wagon production today as in the 1840s.

The bill is in the House Energy Committee, the same committee that earlier this week tried to table a bill to encourage and hasten power companies’ expanded use of renewable energy sources (HB 4562).

The impetus for the bill, as eloquently explained by state Development Office Executive Director Mike Graney earlier this session, is that a number of Fortune 500 companies will not consider locating in West Virginia because of the infinitesimally low usage of renewable energy sources here.

“Not having, frankly, the solar box checked is a problem, and we’ve heard that from a lot from different companies,” Graney told the Senate Finance Committee, when asked about priorities for corporations that might consider opening facilities in the state.

It makes sense that a pro-business Legislature would take steps to remove obstacles that discourage businesses from investing in West Virginia, but we have legislators who would rather sing praises to the corpse of King Coal than attempt to move the state into the 21st century.

But at least we won’t have people roaming our streets with bright red eyeballs.

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@wvgazettemail.com,

304-348-1220 or follow

@PhilKabler on Twitter.

Funerals for Thursday, July 2, 2020

Adkins, Anne - 6 p.m., Roush Funeral Home, Ravenswood.

Morton, Freda - 11 a.m., Hafer Funeral Home, Elkview.

Nunn, Terry - 7 p.m., Good Shepherd Mortuary, South Charleston.

Olive, Rex - 2 p.m., Hafer Funeral Home, Elkview.

Reynolds, George - 2 p.m., Dodd & Reed Funeral Home, Webster Springs.

Rhodes, Ella - 4 p.m., Waybright Funeral Home, Ripley.

Rose, Carol - 10 a.m., Cunningham Memorial Park, St. Albans.

Waldron, Helen - 1 p.m., Forks of Coal Cemetery, Alum Creek.

Wibberg, David - 11 a.m., St. Anthony Catholic Church, Charleston.