Deploying a procedural move not seen in the West Virginia Senate since 1974, Republicans voted Monday to circumvent a committee that was likely to vote down an education overhaul package that includes enabling charter schools in West Virginia.
The Senate Education Committee passed the 144-page bill on Friday after releasing it publicly on Thursday, and referred it to the Senate Finance Committee. However, Senate Democrats and two Republicans on that committee, including the vice chairman, have said they oppose the bill.
So Republicans voted Monday to skip that committee and instead send the bill to a “Committee of the Whole,” which essentially turns all 34 senators into a quasi-committee and allows them to amend, debate or send the bill to the Senate floor.
After the vote, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said he did not know any Republicans opposed the bill and that the bill was sent to the extremely rare Committee of the Whole to better inform members, not to avoid a failing vote.
“If everyone that’s going on the Finance Committee would hear the bill, then go back here and do it again, then do it again as a full Senate, it just seems like the steps would be redundant,” he said.
Senate Democrats affirmed their opposition to the bill in a news release Monday. If no other Republicans opposed the bill, the Committee of the Whole would pass the bill by an 18-16 margin, while the Finance Committee would have rejected it on a 9-8 vote.
In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said the bill will siphon money from public education and that it’s a retaliatory play from Carmichael after the statewide 2018 teacher and school service personnel strike.
“I have never, in all my time in Charleston, seen such a bald-faced, self-serving and mean-spirited political evasion,” Prezioso said. “It shows total disrespect for the democratic process.”
The bill is a sweeping overhaul of West Virginia’s public education system. It contains provisions like enabling charter schools, education savings accounts, differential pay for teachers by subject and geography, and removing seniority protections for teachers and others.
In interviews Monday, Sens. Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, and Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, voiced opposition to the package.
Mann, whom Carmichael ousted as Senate Education chairman and replaced with a pro-charter schools senator, said he thinks the bill will hurt public education.
“At this point with this bill, I’m just not convinced that this is the right approach.” Mann said. “We may be pushing dead last in education, but we’re number one in the drug problem, we’re number one in the poverty level problem. These are huge factors that present themselves and make it a challenge for our teachers. I think they’re at their wits’ end.”
Hamilton said that, while he likes some aspects of the bill, such as increased funding for small counties, the bad — he cited charter schools, paycheck protection, increased classroom size and others — just outweighs the good.
“It’s got too many things that are negative,” he said.
The Senate has convened a Committee of the Whole just three times in state history, in 1917,1961 and 1974.
The first time, it did so when considering a constitutional amendment to field testimony from Gov. John J. Cornwell. The second time, it did so to consider a technical amendment to a bill that imposed income taxes on citizens. The third time concerned energy policy.
During debate on the motion in this session, several Republicans said they support the Committee of the Whole because it gives them a chance to further review a bill when they don’t sit on a committee considering it.
Sens. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, and Randy Smith, R-Tucker, both pointed out that they sit on neither the Education nor the Finance committees and won’t have a chance to amend the bill until it makes it to the floor and on its way to passage.
Invoking recent debates over tax reform proposals and budget squabbles, Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, asked why the education bill is receiving special treatment.
“Why this one?” he said.
In a statement after the Senate vote, Carmichael said the Committee of the Whole is the best way to consider such an important piece of legislation.
“An issue of this magnitude should not have input from only members of the Education and Finance Committees,” he said. “It should have the input of all members of the Senate as we work toward our shared goal of improving student achievement across the board, at all grade levels, in all areas of the state. We believed the Committee of the Whole served as the most open, transparent way to conduct the thorough vetting of this piece of important legislation.”
A meeting time for the Committee of the Whole has not been set.