Two days after the House Judiciary Committee passed a bill meant to give the West Virginia Legislature a bigger check on the governor’s executive powers during a state of emergency, the committee flipped on a key provision in the bill.
In the span of about 15 minutes Monday afternoon, committee members voted to reconsider House Bill 2003 and overturned an amendment that clearly stated the bill was applicable to the current state of emergency Justice declared in March.
In response, two Democratic lawmakers on the committee, Minority Chairman Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, and House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, chided committee members, saying Gov. Jim Justice’s use of executive authority under the state of emergency, as well as a lack of cooperation between the House and Senate, had stripped the Legislature of its ability to check the executive branch and help West Virginians in their districts.
The bill, Fluharty said, was meant to provide that check on the governor.
“[The bill] made somebody upset in the executive office, the old king himself,” Fluharty said. “So we came back in here, and we’re reneging on promises made to our constituents.”
Fluharty also said Justice rewarded former Senate president Mitch Carmichael with a job as director of the West Virginia Economic Development Office after the Senate didn’t muster up enough support for a special session last year to allocate a portion of the $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act funds the state received in the spring, allowing Justice’s office sole control of how the money was distributed.
Carmichael lost his primary reelection race in June.
“This is gross, guys,” Fluharty said. “This is just awful.”
The Governor’s Office did not respond to an email from the Gazette-Mail seeking comment late Monday afternoon.
The overturned amendment, originally introduced by Delegate Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, would have made it clear that the bill would set a 60-day countdown on the state of emergency once it became law. After that, the Legislature would have to vote to extend it.
Now, the bill’s language is ambiguous as to whether it would allow the Legislature to intervene in the state of emergency by voting to extend it or to let it expire.
When the committee debated the bill again Monday, McGeehan said, he wasn’t going to try to convince anybody that the provision should stay in the bill because “it seems like everybody has their mind made up.”
HB 2003 defines the scope of a governor’s power during times of a state of emergency or state of preparedness. It also gives the Legislature the means to extend or end a state of emergency or preparedness.
If the bill becomes law, any time a governor declares a state of emergency, that declaration can’t be in effect longer than 60 days, unless the Legislature convenes and votes to extend the declaration. A state of preparedness would expire after 30 days, without the governor canceling it or the Legislature extending it.
On Saturday, House Judiciary members expressed some confusion about whether the bill would be applicable to the current state of emergency, and McGeehan offered his amendment to clarify that it would.
During debate about McGeehan’s amendment on Saturday, House Judiciary general counsel Brian Casto said he wasn’t certain the bill, without McGeehan’s amendment, would make it applicable to the current state of emergency.
“That is one of the rare questions where I get to state the option. I think that it does, but I think the gentleman’s amendment was to make certain that it does,” Casto said Saturday.
Committee members did not seek Casto’s guidance on the amendment Monday.
Judiciary Vice Chairman Tom Fast, R-Fayette, voted in favor of McGeehan’s amendment Saturday, but he voted against it Monday, saying he believed the language in the bill was clear enough.
“I know counsel said it was perhaps not clear,” Fast said. “I believe the language in the bill would cover the present situation without the amendment, and I think this is necessary to take this action, and so I would also urge rejection of the amendment.”
On Monday, Lovejoy said delegates who were in office since the pandemic began have fielded calls from their constituents but have had to tell them they couldn’t do much because the Legislature wasn’t in session.
Lovejoy, who twice voted in support of McGeehan’s amendment, said he knew the numbers were clear in overturning the measure, but said other committee members would have to answer to their constituents for how they voted.
“If you’re ever asked, ‘Did you have a chance to step up for the legislative branch and take some role in what’s happening to the citizens?’” Lovejoy said, “the answer, if you don’t agree to this amendment, is, ‘I had the chance and I said, ‘No.’ ”