The West Virginia Senate has passed a bill addressing the governor’s authority during states of emergency or preparedness.
The Senate approved House Bill 2003 with a 33-1 vote Wednesday afternoon.
Less than two hours later, the House of Delegates voted to reject the Senate’s version of the bill and requested that the Senate recede its position on the bill.
The bill the Senate passed looks different from the one the House passed on Feb. 19 because of a substitute amendment from the Senate Judiciary Committee the Senate adopted before voting to pass the bill Wednesday.
During debate about the bill that day, Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said he expected the House to reject the Senate’s changes.
“I think the plan is to get this passed in this form and see if the houses can reach an agreement,” Trump said.
Sen. William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, was the lone vote against the bill. Ihlenfeld withdrew an amendment he’d proposed Wednesday after questioning Trump about points of the bill. That included clarifying that the Senate bill provides fewer restrictions than the House bill and expands the authority and discretion a governor has during a state of preparedness or emergency.
The bill still limits states of preparedness declared by the governor to 30 days and states of emergency to 60 days.
The measure, as it was adopted by the Senate, states that it is not meant to limit the authority of the governor under the current state of emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic. West Virginia has operated under a state of emergency since March 16, 2020.
In the House, it had been the intent of lawmakers to clarify that the bill would effectively end the current state of emergency.
The Senate version is a reversal of that stance.
“In an emergency, you need flexibility, adaptability and speed,” Trump said. “That’s the executive. It’s not the Legislature. It’s the governor.”
Another big change to the bill has to do with what happens when states of preparedness or emergency are set to expire after the respective 30 or 60 days have elapsed.
In the Senate’s version of the bill, the governor would be able to extend a declaration as long as he or she provides a written report to the Senate president, House speaker and the Legislative Joint Committee on Government and Finance every 30 days after the set expiration date.
The governor’s report would have to include a “written statement of his or her reasons to believe that the conditions warrant any continuation” of a state of emergency or preparedness.
The Senate’s version of the bill establishes three states of action the governor can declare leading up to, or shortly after, events that drastically affect parts or all of West Virginia that require state resources.
The Legislature currently can extend or end a state of emergency or preparedness by adopting a joint resolution, and that ability remains in House Bill 2003.
There are two classes of states of preparedness:
- A Class I state of preparedness would be an event in anticipation of a possible emergency. Senate Judiciary counsel Tom Smith gave the example of a possible dam breach as a Class I state of preparedness during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on Monday.
- A Class II state of preparedness wouldn’t necessarily involve an impending disaster, but it instead factors in situations when municipalities or counties might not have enough resources to handle an event. Smith gave the example of the Boy Scout Jamboree during the Monday meeting.
The bill still prevents the governor from closing churches or other houses of worship beyond the least-restrictive rules established for other entities during a state of preparedness or emergency.
It also says states of emergency or preparedness do not give local health officers more authority unless a governor explicitly announces such in the declaration.
The governor also wouldn’t be able to suspend or limit the sale of firearms or ammunition during a state of emergency or preparedness or interfere with the operation of news media.
The Senate’s version of the bill maintains a provision established in the House clarifying that any lawsuit or filings related to a state of preparedness or emergency must be filed with the West Virginia Supreme Court. People filing such lawsuits would not have to give 30 days notice to the state.