For a legislative session that was touted as being all about job creation and economic development, the true motto of the 2015 regular session could be, “Rollback, Repel, Regress.”
Time will tell if rolling back safety and environmental regulations, cutting wages, and enacting a variety of legislation that makes it more difficult for individuals to sue businesses for personal or financial injury makes West Virginia more attractive to business. (With the follow-up question being, ‘are those really the kind of businesses we want in the state?’)
The nadir of the supposed Open for Business session came on Black Friday the 13th, when the House of Delegates managed to kill not one, but two innovative economic development initiatives.
First was legislation that, in part, would have permitted ride-share services such as Uber to operate in the state (SB585). Consideration of the bill was postponed indefinitely that day.
Actually, the bill’s fate was sealed a few days earlier, when in a late-night Judiciary Committee session, the ironically named Delegate Tom Fast, R-Fayette, attempted to amend a passenger nondiscrimination policy for taxi and ride-share services in order to make it legal to refuse passengers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
(Attempts to discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks were a running theme of the session, appearing in at least three pieces of legislation. I don’t know what gay people did to upset our legislators, but it sure must have something terrible to warrant such retribution...)
Although Fast’s amendment was soundly defeated, it caused considerable consternation (I understand delegates almost came to blows in committee), and House leadership had the bill postponed indefinitely to avoid an ugly floor fight on the issue.
On the floor later Friday evening, the House put an amendment in a bill designed to shore up car dealers’ legal standings in dealings with auto manufacturers that effectively blocks innovative electric car manufacturer Tesla from doing business in the state.
The floor debate is best left forgotten: Several delegates played the crony capitalism card, talking about how their local car dealers are generous in sponsoring Little League teams and community events (not to mention campaign contributions), while other sneered about the company being owned by California billionaire Elon Musk (some called him “Monk,” but fortunately no one referred to him as “Elton”), and claiming the company relies on federal subsidies.
Never mind that it was stated that fewer than a dozen West Virginians own Teslas, or that a boom in demand for electric-powered cars might just be a good thing for a state that provides coal for electric power plants.
The two actions combined sent a message that outsiders are not welcome, business competitors are not welcome, and innovation is not welcome in West Virginia.
On Saturday evening, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin expressed his frustrations with the Tesla amendment, telling reporters, “One of my goals is to attract business and bring jobs into the state.”
I have to admit to having a touch of schadenfreude in watching the final night of the session crash and burn, with the demise of key legislation to repeal Common Core educational standards, authorize charter schools, call for a constitutional convention to add a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, require forced pooling of Marcellus Shale horizontal drilling projects, force a Senate election in case Joe Manchin runs for governor, and the bizarre fireworks legalization-cum-indoor smoking ban repeal.
I felt sorry, however, for House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, who utterly lost control of the body. The issue was not the Democratic minority, but fringe Tea Party elements within his own party.
Several of the above-mentioned items were never taken up Saturday for fear debate on the House floor would go on for hours on each. Armstead, of course, could have refused to recognize delegates to speak, but that would have caused a revolt of the ideologues within the House GOP.
It remains to be seen whether Armstead and his leadership team can recover from the shambles of the 60th day.
Finally, for all the huffing and puffing the new leadership did about how hard the Legislature was working this session, the final output was not exponentially greater than any other year.
The Legislature passed a total of 261 bills this session.
Previous Democrat-controlled Legislatures passed a total of 216 bills in 2014, 218 bills in 2013, and 216 bills in 2012, including special sessions. So, we’re talking maybe a 20 percent increase in productivity.
Meanwhile, 261 bills is nowhere close to a record. You only have to go back to Manchin’s first term as governor to find Legislatures that were more prolific, bill-wise, than this one.
In the 2005 regular session, the Legislature passed a total of 265 bills, topped by 266 bills passed in 2006, and topped again by 275 passed in 2007. Also, during special sessions those years, the Legislature passed an additional 42 bills in 2005, 44 bills in 2006, and 19 bills in 2007.
Reach Phil Kabler at email@example.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.