Details are becoming known now, and things have the potential to get ugly.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote in this space a column about Senate Bill 514, which would allow Gov. Jim Justice and Division of Natural Resources director Steve McDaniel to remake the state Natural Resources Commission.
The commission, for those not familiar with it, is a seven-member panel that sets the state’s hunting and fishing regulations.
Current law calls for the commission to be composed of at least one member from each of the state’s three congressional districts, plus four at-large members. The panel’s current makeup includes two members each from the 1st and 2nd districts, and three from the 3rd District. Under the proposed bill, the commission would be revamped to include at least one member from each of the six DNR management districts, plus one at-large member.
That, in and of itself, isn’t what has the potential to get ugly.
That dubious honor goes to the manner in which the commission would be remade. Under Senate Bill 514 (or its companion bill, House Bill 2867, which was introduced more recently), Justice would have the power to clean house and appoint an entirely new commission if he so desired.
Commissioners currently serve 7-year terms, one of which expires each year. This staggers the makeup of the panel over more than one administration, which helps ensure that no single governor or DNR director can manipulate hunting- and fishing-regulation policy based on his or her personal preferences.
The two bills currently under consideration contain no such safeguards.
If one of them passes in its current form, Justice will be given the power to replace the entire commission on July 1 if he wishes to. Those commissioners would be allowed to serve up to two 4-year terms. Justice will make the appointments, but the bills’ language will allow McDaniel to recommend who gets appointed.
Here’s where things could get ugly: What if, several years down the road, an animal-rights activist were elected governor? He or she could simply replace hunting- and fishing-friendly commissioners with people eager to set regulations designed to limit West Virginians’ abilities to pursue those pastimes.
McDaniel’s motives for pushing the bills have been called into question. One of the current commissioners, Pete Cuffaro of Wheeling, said in a letter to every member of the Legislature that he believes McDaniel had the bills introduced “in response to four (4) of the Commissioners, including me, voting down a proposal to limit the number of bucks harvested from three (3) to two (2).”
Cuffaro predicted in his letter that he and the other “no” voters would be replaced if one of the bills passes.
Asked about that, McDaniel said the bills have “nothing to do with the buck limit and everything to do with equal representation for hunters and anglers, and to ensure that all commissioners are accessible and accountable to those we serve.”
Frankly, having observed and covered the commission for 41 years, I believe Cuffaro’s assessment is spot-on. During the past three years of the buck-limit debate, McDaniel has claimed to be impartial while reportedly doing everything he could behind the scenes to make sure the limit got lowered.
For argument’s sake, though, let’s say McDaniel truly does want to ensure that all the DNR districts are represented by people who live in them.
Fair enough. But couldn’t that be fixed by a simple revision to the code? Replace the words “congressional districts” with “DNR management districts,” and leave everything else the same? Since one commissioner’s term expires each year, it would take only two years for all six DNR districts to be represented on the panel.
It’s as though McDaniel has perceived a problem in the commission’s makeup and, instead of using a scalpel to remove and repair the problematic language, he has chosen to take an ax to the patient in the hope he can replace it with one more to his liking.