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Attempt by West Virginia House to limit current pandemic state of emergency fails

Del. Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, argues in favor of an amendment to provide a timeline for reviewing the current state of emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy of WV Legislative Photography)

CHARLESTON — An attempt by a bipartisan group of lawmakers to give the Legislature say on the current state of emergency for the COVID-19 failed in a narrow vote Thursday.

The House of Delegates voted 47-51 against an amendment to House Bill 2003, relating to the authority and obligations of the governor and Legislature when in declared states of preparedness and emergency. The bill is on third reading and up for passage today in the House.

HB 2003, as it is currently written, puts a time limit on future states of emergency called by the governor. If passed by the Legislature and approved by Gov. Jim Justice, any state of emergency lasting longer than 60 days would require the Legislature to meet in special session to extend the state of emergency.

The failed amendment — offered by Del. Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock — would have started a 60-day countdown on the state of emergency called by Justice last year for the COVID-19 pandemic, starting when the bill was passed by both the House and state Senate.

“The concept of the bill is to limit the duration of a state of emergency without legislative approval for an extension,” McGeehan said. “What my amendment does is make it clear that this … applies to the current state of emergency. If my amendment were to pass — upon passage, essentially — the clock would start ticking.”

West Virginia has been under a state of emergency since March 16, 2020, with Justice issuing dozens of executive orders dealing with pandemic response, closing and re-opening non-essential businesses, ordering the usage of face masks in indoor public places, determining re-opening guidelines and metrics for schools, and more.

McGeehan first offered the amendment during a meeting last Saturday of the House Judiciary Committee. The amendment was adopted, with the committee approving HB 2003. However, by Monday, the committee reconsidered the bill and removed McGeehan’s amendment.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, said he didn’t oppose the intent of McGeehan’s amendment, but he did raise concerns about the amendment’s language and whether it created ambiguity.

“When you insert emotion into the policymaking process, we get sloppy sometimes,” Capito said. “I don’t know what ‘passage’ means … Does it mean passage from this body? Does it mean passage from (the Senate)? Does it mean when it’s signed by the governor? Sounds like a question that needs some interpretation.”

McGeehan said the meaning of “passage” is plain and simple, with legislation approved all the time which make those law effective from passage, meaning when a bill completes the legislative process but before a governor signs it into law. In conversations with legislative attorneys, McGeehan said the current bill isn’t clear on whether it applies to the current state of emergency or not

“If some of our smartest members in here and smartest attorneys in here can’t determine exactly what the fact is if this bill were to pass … that’s sort of a travesty,” McGeehan said. “I’m sort of taken aback by (Capito’s) argument, because when I first offered this amendment and spoke with him, he never brought that up. The amendment was written right in front of him, and he never said, ‘I don’t understand what passage means.'”

Debate on the single amendment took up more than 40 minutes and resulted in multiple floor speeches by fellow Republicans and even Democratic lawmakers expressing support for McGeehan’s amendment.

“I feel very strongly that separation of powers is critically important, and it has been ignored for a very, very long time,” said Del. Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia. “I don’t think it harms anything at all to say that this law applies right now. We can all disagree about legal issues, but I think … it’s pretty clear that we want this law to apply to the current situation and to future situations that we defined very, very carefully.”

A petition was circulated over the summer among lawmakers trying to call themselves into special session both to review Justice’s state of emergency decisions and to appropriate the $1.25 billion made available for state and local government COVID-19 expenses through the federal C.A.R.E.S. Act. The House had the required three-fifths of members needed to call itself into special session, but there was not enough support in the state Senate.

Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, was one of those who supported calling the Legislature into special session and writing letters to Justice calling on him to call lawmakers into special session. But he said the bill is sound and the amendment could put the bill at risk later on.

“There’s hardly anybody in here that wasn’t more frustrated with the last year of dealing with the current situation we’re in,” Steele said. “But if we’re putting something in here that even has the potential of disrupting it, I don’t want to do it because I think we got a good bill here.”

While McGeehan’s amendment was unsuccessful, an amendment from Del. Nathan Brown, D-Mingo, prohibiting a governor from closing houses of worship or dictating religious practices during a state of emergency was adopted.

Also on third reading and up for passage today is House Bill 2014, requiring a governor to call in the Legislature for any expenditure of federal disaster funding more than $150 million during a declared state of emergency.

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

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