Reporter’s Notebook: Week Seven at the Capitol
We are under two weeks out from the end of the 60-day 2019 legislative session, which means things speed up significantly now.
In fact, toward the end of last week both the House of Delegates and Senate started having morning and evening floor sessions to keep the calendar of bills moving, hearing messages from each chamber on the passage of bills and taking up committee reports.
Once upon a time this would be when lawmakers would start pushing bills after weeks of procrastination. In the last few years, however, the Legislature has gotten better at working into the evening hours to keep bills moving. As a result, day 60 isn’t nearly as stressful as it used to be.
When I worked for former Senate president Jeff Kessler, I watched him become an auctioneer on day 60, speaking as fast as the MicroMachines’ spokesperson from the 1990s, to ensure no bill died by the midnight deadline. Now, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, goes as fast as an auctioneer just as a matter of course.
Despite the distraction of the Senate education omnibus legislation, other bills have kept moving. Most think a bill like the education omnibus takes time away from other bills. However, the Legislature is set up in such a way where it can walk and chew gum at the same time. At the most, each chamber lost a couple of days. I’m not saying that doesn’t make a difference, but they can make up that lost time in the next two weeks by working double-time.
I didn’t cover last year’s session or the teachers’ strike, but I did work one floor below the Legislature when I was press secretary of Secretary of State Mac Warner. The hundreds, if not thousands, of teachers who came to the Capitol last year might have directed their ire at lawmakers, but anyone who worked in the building was affected.
The two-day strike last week was obviously a smaller time frame and also didn’t result in as many teachers storming the Capitol. Yet, due to the swiftness from the time the Senate re-amended charter schools and education savings accounts into Senate Bill 451 to the end of Wednesday after union representatives declared victory, I felt like I was in a very condensed version of last year’s strike.
The leaders of the Senate learned a lesson about wanting something too much that you lose everything. All you have is what can pass one body or the other. The Senate was able to get an education savings account program for special needs students and a six-school charter school program. The House couldn’t get any support for ESA’s and delegates would only support a two-school charter pilot for converting existing elementary schools.
The Senate re-amended its provisions back into the bill, believing that they had at least 52 delegates who would support the amendment. Then the strike was called and the next day the House voted to 53-45 — including 12 Republicans — to kill the bill.
Obviously, the teachers and school service personnel unions think they accomplished something. I’m here to tell you this would have likely been the result whether they went on strike or not. I believe the unions lost the moral high ground they might have had by striking. I believe it played into the stereotype that some Republican operatives were trying to paint all along.
That doesn’t get the Senate off the hook, however, for pushing its all-or-nothing amendment. Instead of amending what the House did, they should have moved to reject the House amendment and went straight into a conference committee where you would have had a better chance of a compromise on ESA’s and charter schools. It would have been better to get some of what they wanted.
Now they’re getting nothing, except the original 5 percent pay raise for teachers and school service personnel, the proposal Gov. Jim Justice made in October with several of these lawmakers standing behind him. Now, those lawmakers did not know Justice was going to recommend a pay raise. It was supposed to be a press conference on putting $100 million in a PEIA rainy day fund.
Yet, since October some of these same lawmakers have said they are committed to the 5 percent pay raise. Even Republican senators, who are on the record saying they would still support the pay raises even if SB 451 went down in flames. On the flip side, the unions are on the record saying that teachers and school service personnel would gladly give up any hope of a pay raise this session if SB 451 died.
Well, SB 451 is dead, but the clean pay raise bill passed the House on Friday. Will senators honor their word? And if they don’t, will teachers and school service personnel strike again despite their public statements?
Steven Allen Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.