The Senate Government Organization on Saturday afternoon voted to terminate the West Virginia Women’s Commission.
The state House of Delegates had voted to disband the commission about a month ago, in the first cut the House had debated this legislative session. Saturday was the first time the bill was taken up by a Senate committee.
House Bill 2646, terminating a division of the Department of Health and Human Resources most recently allotted about $150,000, now goes to the full Senate for a vote there.
The Women’s Commission was created in 1977 “for the broad purpose of improving the status and opportunities of women in the State.” According to state code, it is responsible for reviewing and studying the status of women in West Virginia and recommending methods of overcoming discrimination against women in public and private employment and in the exercise of their civil and political rights.
Saturday afternoon, Jennifer Greenlief, an attorney for the Legislature, explained the bill to the committee. She also referenced legislative audits.
A 1999 performance review found that, because other state programs to improve women’s lives had been created, the commission should be terminated or given three years to show it was not duplicating functions. In a 2001 performance review, the auditor found the women’s commission was “focusing on issues that did not significantly duplicate efforts of other state programs.” A 2006 audit said that the commission was ineffective, due to inadequate funding, and should be eliminated or given more funding.
Asked her views, Greenlief told them “it wouldn’t matter a whole heck of a lot.”
Meanwhile, no representatives of the Women’s Commission or other organizations that advocate for women’s rights in West Virginia were asked to speak. Stacy North, chairwoman for the commission, said after she wasn’t aware the bill was on the agenda.
The bill was considered at the conclusion of a roughly two-hour meeting. Delegate Kayla Kessinger, R- Fayette, and the lead sponsor, appeared at the last minute and spoke about the bill.
“I think it’s no secret that our state is struggling financially,” she said, before adding that the commission offers “duplicative services.”
The all-male Senate government organization committee, chaired by Senator Craig Blair, R- Berkeley, decided in a voice vote to send the bill to the Senate floor. No one asked for a different type of vote, such as one requiring lawmakers to raise their hands or a roll call vote, that would have allowed for each lawmaker’s vote to be documented, but Glenn Jeffries, D- Putnam, later said that he was one of the few “nays” heard. He suggested during the meeting to try to “fix” the commission instead of eliminate it.
In an interview after the meeting, Kessinger addressed her statement that the Women’s Commission offers duplicative services.
“The audits did state that the state provides the same services that the Women’s Commission provides in several areas,” she said.
Asked for specifics, she noted that the state allocates funding to domestic violence programs, and that state executive committees offer candidate training.
“As a member of the executive committee, I can speak to the fact that our party has consistently attempted to recruit women and help them in any way, shape or form,” she said.
“The women’s commission’s mission is to boost the role of women in society and things like that,” she said. “They do a lot of raising awareness for domestic violence. I don’t think anyone would fault them in any way but the state funds also, in addition to them, funds a lot of other organizations that focus on that issue as well. This commission, to me, does not seem to have fulfilled its role in government over the 40-plus years it’s existed.”
The Ready to Run candidate training program the commission held once, and partnerships with domestic violence victim advocacy groups, are two of the commission’s roles.
According to a 2016 report by the commission, the West Virginia Women’s Commission is “the only state agency mandated to bring needs and concerns of the state’s female population to the attention of legislators and other government officials” and the organization’s functions include “legislative monitoring, information referral, educational workshops and seminars, publication and distribution of educational materials, and research and recognition of women’s accomplishments.”
“I’m not sure that it’s government’s role and I’m not sure that women actually need the government to step in and help them run for office or do any of those other things,” Kessinger said.
Similar to the Women’s Commission, the Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs is charged with reviewing research that affects minorities and making recommendations to the Legislature, according to state code.
“I have no problem with the Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs,” Kessinger said. “I just can speak as a woman. I did not need and I do not believe women need government assistance in that area.”
“I can’t speak to that,” Kessinger said. “I’m not a minority so I can’t give you an answer on that.”
Last week, more than 100 girls learned more about the political process at the West Virginia Women’s Commission’s “Women’s and Girls’ Day at the Legislature.”
The 2017 Legislature includes 18 women — the lowest number since 1984. Three women are in the 34-member state Senate.