The 60 days of madness that is the West Virginia Legislature’s regular session kicks off Wednesday, and it portends to be particularly jarring to the senses this time around.
West Virginians will be treated to what will surely be another bizarre, nebulous State of the State address Wednesday evening from Gov. Jim Justice. No doubt, legislative insiders already are making low-stakes proposition bets on what odd phrases or weird props the governor will produce during his speech, which typically comes off like Justice has just arrived from Greenbrier County and is winging it (mainly because that’s exactly what has happened).
Many also are likely pondering what culture-war issue will dominate the session. Since the GOP took control of the Legislature for the first time in more than 80 years back in 2015, then gained a supermajority in both chambers after the 2020 election, the party has been short on hard policy goals.
True, the Legislature did repeal the prevailing wage and enact a right-to-work law in its first years in control. But those moves are now regarded by some Republicans in the Legislature and the governor as bad ideas that haven’t produced the economic development results they were sold under.
Finding policies to actually improve West Virginia’s economy and stem the bleeding from a declining population have been difficult, which is why Republicans have turned to culture-war issues, like loosening gun regulations, enacting redundant abortion laws that already are covered in state and federal code, attacking public education and pursuing policies sure to make the state look as backward and unwelcoming as possible.
Last session’s major “victories” were a charter school bill so bad that pro-charter lobbyist groups felt compelled to issue statements against it and a ban on transgender athletes. That latter item could be the state’s most outstanding example of a solution looking for a problem, then finding one in subsequent lawsuits that could end up dinging the wallets of taxpayers.
The coming session likely will be rife with similar fights that grant the illusion of some kind of win while not accomplishing much (it is an election year, after all).
Then again, the potential exists for some attempts at reform.
A group of Republicans has formed a Labor Caucus, in an effort to make sure there is a ready workforce here for the jobs that will be created by President Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure package. The state has missed the boat on these types of things before. For instance, it was mostly out-of-state workers who were brought in during the boom in pipeline construction to carry gas from the Marcellus Shale in West Virginia to other parts of the country. The Labor Caucus is looking to avoid similar failures, as workers will be needed to help improve the state’s roads, bridges, buildings and broadband infrastructure.
The Labor Caucus identifies the prevailing wage repeal as one of the key mistakes that could cost West Virginians good-paying jobs on these new government projects. Republican leadership already has harshly rebuked the group and promised to primary every legislator involved, if they try to undo some of these past blunders, again showing that the only tools the higher-ups in the party know how to wield are fear and anger.
So, add the possibility of infighting to the sure bet on identity politics.
It’s going to be a long 60 days. Buckle up.