The West Virginia House of Delegates opened up with a bang of the gavel so big that the head of the gavel broke away from its handle in House Clerk Steve Harrison’s hand, thus convening the 85th West Virginia Legislature Wednesday afternoon.
Aside from more than 20 new members, the House largely looked the same, but access to the chamber and its galleries were limited as delegates elected officers and certified the 2020 general election for state offices.
The House hasn’t convened since March 7, 2020, one week before President Donald Trump declared a national emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a joint session of the Legislature from the House chamber, the House and Senate certified the 2020 election results that solidified Republicans’ hold on government as all of the state’s constitutional offices — governor, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, commissioner of agriculture and attorney general — now are held by Republicans.
Republicans in the House also formally reelected Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, to another term.
In a speech after the House returned him to the speaker’s podium, Hanshaw said it is up to the Legislature to do the work that makes people want to choose West Virginia.
“We are a symbol in extraordinary times,” Hanshaw said. “We are called here as a deliberative body in extraordinary circumstances, and it’s appropriate that we give pause and reflect on where we are, how we got here and what our service means, not only to us as friends and colleagues, but what our service means to the state of West Virginia to each of the 18,500 men and women we each represent and for the future of our state and the future of West Virginia.”
The House adjourned Wednesday afternoon and is scheduled to return to the Capitol for the regular 60-day session on Feb. 10.
The West Virginia Constitution requires the Legislature to convene on the second Wednesday in January each year to elect officers and set rules during what usually is called “organization day.”
Every four years, set on a pattern aligning with the state’s gubernatorial elections, the constitution requires the Legislature to adjourn after this organization day, and then reconvene on the second Wednesday in February for the regular session.
Where there had been handshakes and a flurry of activity 10 months ago, there were masks and limited access even for legislative staff on the House floor Wednesday.
Delegates adopted House Resolution 5 to establish COVID-19 protocols in the chamber for the 2021 session only.
All members of the House are required to wear a face mask or other face covering, unless they are actively eating or drinking, per the resolution. If delegates do not want to wear a mask, they may sit in the South Gallery of the chamber. That’s the gallery closest to Kanawha Boulevard and the Kanawha River.
Delegates who prefer to wear masks but would like more space from other delegates are permitted to sit in the North Gallery.
No delegates sat in the no-mask South Gallery on Wednesday. Three delegates sat in the North Gallery, wearing their masks for most of Wednesday’s session — Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, and Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson. Doyle stood on the House floor for a few minutes to debate HR 5.
All three of them voted from the gallery by giving a thumbs up or thumbs down, which were recorded by the House Clerk.
Members of the news media were seated in the West Gallery, in the rear of the chamber, on a first-come-first-served basis, per the new rule.
House Democrats attempted to amend HR 5 to require delegates to wear the mask “properly,” covering their mouth and nose, but the amendment was rejected along party lines in a 75-23 vote.
The vote totals didn’t quite add up to the full 100-member capacity Wednesday, as the House formally accepted on record the resignation of Derrick Evans, who served about five weeks in the House but never sat in the chamber. Delegate Geoff Foster, R-Putnam, also was not present Wednesday.
Evans resigned Jan. 9 after his Jan. 8 arrest on federal charges of entering a restricted area and violent entry or disorderly conduct.
Evans livestreamed his perspective of the breach of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 as Congress worked to certify the 2020 presidential election results. He later deleted the video from his Facebook page.
Members of the state House and Senate had called on Evans to resign and pressured House leadership to take action on Wednesday, had Evans not resigned.
Evans pleaded not guilty and was released from law enforcement custody on Jan. 8.
Evans’ seat will remain vacant until Gov. Jim Justice appoints another Republican to represent House District 19, which includes most of Wayne County.
The Wayne County Republican Executive Committee has 15 days from Jan. 9 to submit to Justice a short list of names of people to fill the vacancy. Once the governor has the list, he has five days to appoint a new delegate.