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West Virginia lawmakers meet for first time in 2021

Members of the House of Delegates take the oath of office administered by Justice Tim Armstead. (Photo by Steven Allen Adams)

CHARLESTON — Members of the West Virginia Senate and House of Delegates gaveled in for the first time in 2021 on Wednesday — the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the state.

Wednesday’s first day of session was mostly ceremonial, with lawmakers adjourning until Wednesday, Feb 10. During years following an election for governor, the Legislature meets on the second day of January for the ceremonial first day, then returns on the second Wednesday in February.

Both chambers received a report from Secretary of State Mac Warner with the official results of the 2020 general election that saw a sweep by Republicans of the Governor’s Office, the Board of Public Works, and the Legislature itself.

The state Senate gaveled in with 23 Republicans and 11 Democrats. Democrats in the House now hold 23 seats. Republicans won 76 seats and picked up an additional seat after Berkeley County Del. Jason Barrett switched parties from Democrat to Republican, bring them to 77.

One of those seats was empty Wednesday with the resignation of former Wayne County Republican Derrick Evans after he was charged for his part in last week’s storming of the U.S. Capitol Building by supporters of President Donald Trump. A new Republican will be appointed to that seat at a later time.

State Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, is sworn in by Chief Justice Evan Jenkins as the next Senate President. (Photo courtesy of WV Legislative Photography)

On the House side, Del. Bill Anderson, R-Wood, presided over the session as the oldest member of the body. Tim Armstead, a justice on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and a former Republican Speaker of the House, gave the oath of office to House members.

Members voted for House Speaker, House Clerk, the Sergeant-at-Arms, and the Head Doorkeeper. The House Republican Caucus once again supported Del. Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, for a second term as Speaker of the House. House Democrats nominated their new minority leader, Del. Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha.

With the numbers on his side, Hanshaw easily won election as House Speaker 76-22. In an effort to show unity, Skaff was one of the delegates who escorted Hanshaw and his family to the podium, calling Hanshaw “an honest man and a respected man.”

“I want to be the first to congratulate our next speaker for the upcoming session,” Skaff said. “I’m honored to call (Hanshaw) a friend, I’m honored to call him a leader, and I’m honored to call him one of us. It’s an honor to be one of 100 people and to serve in this House Chamber under this beautiful dome. The campaigns are over: let’s put the rhetoric aside. It’s time to come together, not as Republicans and not as Democrats, but as West Virginians.”

In his acceptance speech, Hanshaw said delegates had an obligation to make West Virginia the number one place to live, work, and raise a family.

“We have an obligation to create the best West Virginia we can create,” Hanshaw said. “Make no mistake, ladies and gentlemen, the spotlight of the world is shining on West Virginia for reasons we didn’t necessarily choose … we have an opportunity now to take advantage of the spotlight. We have an opportunity now to create a West Virginia people want to choose.”

On the Senate side, Chief Justice Evan Jenkins — a former Republican state senator for Cabell County — gave the oath of office to the senators, while Senate President Pro Tempore Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, presided over the Senate floor session. Boley was honored Wednesday for serving more than four decades in the Senate. She was first appointed in 1986 and at one point was the only Republican member of the state Senate.

Republicans nominated state Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, as their nominee for President of the Senate and Lieutenant Governor, succeeding Mitch Carmichael after he was defeated in the June Republican primary for the 3rd Senatorial District. Senate Democrats nominated new Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier.

After the nominations were made, Baldwin made a motion to elect Blair senate president by acclamation as a show of unity and solidarity. Giving his acceptance remarks, Blair said the Senate was going to work to change the State of West Virginia for the better.

“This is an honor and a privilege to serve as your Senate President for both the majority and the minority,” Blair said. “We’re here to make the lives of West Virginians better. We can do that together, along with the House of Delegates and (Gov. Jim Justice) … to make this state the best state that it can possibly be. No idea will be off the table.”

Both chambers adopted rules to govern how they work together jointly as well as the rules for each respective body. With the COVID-19 pandemic raging in the state, both the House and Senate instituted changes aimed at limiting and preventing spread of the virus. Masks were required for all members and staff in the chambers except when recognized to speak. Only lawmakers and staff were allowed on the floors of both chambers, with media watching from the galleries.

House members — concerned about the tightly-packed House Chamber — chose to participate from the North Gallery. Members who did not want to wear a mask could sit in the South Gallery, but none chose to do so. The House also adopted House Resolution 5, which put in place pandemic safety procedures for the conduct of floor sessions and committee meetings.

Several Democratic House members attempted to amend HR 5 in order to require House members to properly wear face masks over both the nose and mouth at the same time and also wear masks even while recognized to speak.

“The way that the resolution is written, it does not require the face covering to be worn properly,” said Del. Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia. “It does not require face masks to be worn when speaking, which is the very time the droplets form your mouth are most likely to impact the people around you. Looking around this chamber, we are not social distanced. We’re not 6 feet apart. I understand why that is the case, but it makes it even more important for us to wear a mask and wear it properly.”

House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, spoke against the amendment. A registered nurse, Summers said the resolution as written already provides options for lawmakers concerned about other delegates not properly wearing their masks.

“I rise in opposition to the motion, otherwise what I’m afraid will happen all session is we’ll be doing points of order left and right because someone’s mask happened to slip below their nose,” Summers said just three desks away from Del. Tony Paynter, R-Wyoming, whose mask stayed below his chin for most of the floor session. “I think we all know the proper way to wear our masks and we’re expecting each other to do that.”

The amendment to HR 5 failed 23-75. The resolution was adopted by voice vote.

Between now and when the Legislature returns on Feb. 10, the inauguration of Justice will take place. Traditionally the third Monday in January, the Governor’s inauguration will take place Friday, Jan. 22 at 1 p.m. on the North steps of the State Capitol Building. When the Legislature gavels back in Feb. 10, Justice will give his annual State of the State speech that evening.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com

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