With the needed 60 votes apparently secured in the House of Delegates, and with Senate Democrats united in calling for a special session, the key to the West Virginia Legislature petitioning itself into a session on federal CARES Act appropriations rests with Senate Republicans.
“We’re not going down that path,” Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said Thursday. “We don’t support having a special session, or calling ourselves into special session.”
Senate Republicans have been the holdouts as members of the House and Senate have called for a special session to divvy out $1.25 billion in CARES Act funds, intended to provide financial relief to cities, counties, businesses and individuals hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
During his daily COVID-19 briefing Wednesday, Gov. Jim Justice was adamantly opposed to calling a special session — or having the Legislature call itself into special session to spending the CARES Act funds — calling it “rock-solid nothing but politics.”
Earlier Wednesday, House Democrats sent a letter to Justice calling for a special session, stating, “Quite frankly, it has been far too long for you to serve in a role that many have begun to describe as dictatorial. Neither you nor anyone else in your administration should be operating under the false belief that you [or anybody else] should possess sole authority when it comes to spending $1.25 billion dollars of taxpayer money and, further, making decisions that affect every individual and business in the state.”
A day earlier, Senate Democrats sent Justice a letter calling for increased CARES Act funding for public education, safety, fire departments and local governments.
“We urge you to convene the Legislature with the prior agreement of a limited and agreed-to call which provides for oversight and transparency of fund distribution,” the letter stated. “We believe our Constitution requires nothing less.”
The letter was signed by 12 of 14 Senate Democrats. Assuming unanimity among Senate Democrats, that would require seven Senate Republicans to join Democrats to reach the 21 senators required for the Legislature to petition itself into special session.
In the House of Delegates, more than the required 60 members have signed letters calling for a special session.
Under the state constitution, three-fifths of members of the House and Senate must sign petitions in order to require the governor to call the Legislature into session.
However, on Thursday, Carmichael said there is no likelihood that those advocating for a special session will be able to peel off the seven Senate Republicans needed to make that a reality.
“We’re just not on the same page that I think some Senate Democrats are,” he said.
Carmichael said Justice has been responsive to suggestions from Senate leadership regarding CARES Act funding, including adopting a proposal to shift $50 million of a proposed $100 million for road building to broadband expansion.
“We are really positioned as a state [that] people will want to come to get away from some of the larger urban areas,” he said of West Virginia’s post-pandemic opportunities. “However, to do that, we have to be able to provide quality broadband service.”
Carmichael lauded Justice’s willingness to seek input from legislators on the CARES Act spending. That’s in contrast to many legislators, who contend they have had little to no input into the appropriations process. Justice said he has met with senators and delegates on an ad hoc basis.
“I agree with basically everything within what he’s done,” Carmichael said of Justice’s plan for spending the $1.25 billion. “It comports with what we would have done.”
Given that, Carmichael said it would be “kind of unnecessary” to have a special session to sign off on Justice’s proposals.
Justice on Wednesday objected to the roughly $35,000-a-day cost for special sessions, saying, “Calling us back in is unnecessary, it’s expensive and, absolutely, it’s just going to cost the taxpayers dollars.”
“That’s some of it,” Carmichael said of Senate leadership’s opposition to a special session. “There’s not a real fear of the logistics of it on the social distancing requirements. I think we could work our way through that.”
Unlike some other legislators, Carmichael said Senate leadership believes Justice has operated within the confines of authority granted a governor during a state of emergency. If legislators believe those laws grant too much power to governors during states of emergency, the proper time to address that would be during the 2021 regular session.
“We don’t criticize members of the House for taking that position,” he said.