West Virginia Democrats call for greater legislative transparency
CHARLESTON — With COVID-19 creating greater restrictions on the public’s access during the 2021 legislative session, Democratic leaders in the House of Delegates and state Senate called for better efforts at transparency for lawmakers.
Del. Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall, and state Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha, held a press conference Monday to raise their concerns about transparency issues.
With nearly 75 total bills passed from one chamber to the other – 30 House bills and 44 Senate bills – Zukoff and Lindsay said Republicans need to do a better job at making sure the public is not left out of the process.
“Transparency does have everything to do with trust,” Lindsay said. “We’re talking about a majority that’s been in power hour now for over five years and it’s become less and less transparent with every session.”
Monday was the first day a House committee allowed for a public hearing on a bill. The House Judiciary Committee held a virtual public hearing on House Bill 2389, allowing the state Department of Environmental Protection to make changes to water quality standards.
Zukoff said this was great, but other requests for public hearings on other bills have been denied by committee chairmen and in some cases testimony by invited witnesses to committees have not been allowed.
“It just appalls me that we are going through this at the Legislature,” Zukoff said.
While committees normally meet in four committee rooms, committee meetings are limited this year to the House Government Organization Committee room and the House Chamber due to their size, allowing members, staff, and guests to socially distance.
Zukoff and other House Democratic lawmakers have asked House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, to allow committee meetings in the House Chamber to be livestreamed over video. All committees and the Chamber allow for audio livestreaming, but only the House Chamber has video capability.
“We thought since people … can’t be here this year because of COVID — everybody needs to be safe — the least we could do is to show those hearings to the public who normally can be here and attend,” Zukoff said.
Unlike the House, the state Senate provides video of committee meetings. The Senate completely overhauled its audio livestream systems and also implemented video archiving in 2016, allowing the press, lobbyists, and public to go back and watch past meetings and floor sessions.
Both the House and Senate communication teams – as well as the Legislature’s Office of Reference and Information — have worked to provide resources to the public. Many of these resources have been offered long before COVID-19.
Committee and floor agendas, calendars, and bills set to be introduced are updated in real-time. Links to membership directories and information packets for the 2021 session can be downloaded. Communications staff live-tweet floor sessions and use social media to announce changes to committee agendas and times. And House and Senate members are releasing video during the week updating the public on legislative actions.
Both Zukoff and Lindsay complained about the speedy process for legislation. Bill that would normally be sent through two committees for review are now single-referenced. Bills with financial effects are often skipping the finance committees in the House and Senate, and some bills with financial costs are missing fiscal notes.
“This year, many, many bills are being run super quickly and they’re being run without a separate (committee) reference,” Zukoff said. “You’ve had several bills be pulled from the floor because of questions that we’re asking.”
According to Lindsay, 92 percent of Senate bills introduced this session are only sent to one committee. Lindsay said the executive order prohibiting the public from the State Capitol Building except for official businesses has given Republican lawmakers an excuse to be less transparent.
“That’s the highest it’s ever been,” Lindsay said. “I personally think that the majority has taken advantage of the fact of COVID … I think what this adds up to be is just, again, the least transparent Legislature that I can remember.”
Steven Allen Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org