Reporter’s Notebook: Signed, sealed and delivered
CHARLESTON — With Gov. Jim Justice’s signatures and vetoes, we can now truly tie a bow on the 2019 regular session of the West Virginia Legislature.
During the 60 days between Jan. 9 and March 9, a total of 1,823 bills were introduced and 294 bills passed both the Senate and House of Delegates. That’s more than 16 percent of the bills introduced making it through the process.
Justice signed 264 of the 294 bills, bringing the percentage of approved bills compared to the total introduced down to 14 percent. That’s pretty good and the greatest number of completed legislation in many years.
Lawmakers — especially the Republican-led Legislature — are often criticized for focusing on one issue at the expense of others. Yet, they passed 294 bills during the chaos of the education omnibus bill and the two-day strike, the controversies surrounding the campus carry bill and the bad comments and behavior of several lawmakers that received national press.
They even passed the budget the Friday before the end of the session. That certainly has never happened in my decade in Charleston and it was a day earlier than last year. This is a Legislature that doesn’t take its 60 days for granted.
Gov. Justice received some criticism for how long it took for bills to be signed or vetoed. Some of that can be attributed to Justice working out of his Lewisburg home instead of his office in the Capitol. Some of it, however, is due to the sheer number of bills passed and the process used to make sure the bills are correctly worded.
When I first arrived in Charleston there wasn’t a robust proofreading process for legislation. Sure, bills were edited for mistakes and legal issues, but these were often fixed after the fact. When the Republicans took the majority in the Legislature, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, would often veto bills due to technical flaws. What was once overlooked and fixed later now was being used as excuses to nix Republican legislation.
To fix this, the House and Senate and the Joint Committee on Government and Finance, the committee chaired by the House speaker and Senate president that makes decisions on behalf of both chambers, instituted a number of proofreading offices.
Since then, bills are very rarely vetoed for technical issues, but it also slows down the process by which bills are sent to the governor. In fact, it looks like some bills didn’t make it to the governor until two days before the March 27 deadline for bills to be signed or vetoed before they automatically become law.
During his press conference announcing his “plan” for secondary road maintenance funding, Justice expressed uncertainty about signing House Bill 3142, lowering the severance tax rate on steam coal used in power plants from 5 percent to 3 percent over the next three fiscal years. When you’re trying to check the couch for change, losing $60 million in severance tax revenue over three years is a big deal, especially when you’re needing to fix the roads.
But last week, Justice must have had a change of heart and signed HB 3142 gladly, surrounded by miners at a mine owned by coal magnate Bob Murray. It’s no secret that Murray Energy primarily mines steam coal, though there’s not much argument that the tax cut for steam coal will help West Virginia coal become more competitive in the short term.
It’s also no secret that Bob Murray can flex an enormous amount of political muscle. President Donald Trump benefited from Murray’s largesse, with pressure being put on the Department of Energy and Trump to use national security powers to force power plants to keep using coal instead of cheaper natural gas.
Justice doesn’t need Murray’s money in the 2020 race for governor (or maybe he does. There’s some question as to how much money Justice actually has). But he does need to make sure that Murray doesn’t throw his support behind another Republican challenger or even possibly a Democrat challenger. Signing the coal severance tax cut bill is a good way of making sure Murray doesn’t back anyone else.
That’s why I’m a little surprised Justice signed Senate Bill 622, raising the campaign finance donation caps for candidates up to federal levels. Not because it’s a bad bill. It’s not. It brings state campaign finance laws out of the Stone Age, requires greater disclosure and the way it is set up encourages a donor to choose a candidate versus donating to a “dark money” group.
I’m surprised he signed it because it gives Republican primary challengers and a Democrat challenger in the general a chance to come up with more money. Assuming Justice is still a billionaire, it’s going to be impossible to outspend him.
As we’ve seen time and time again, the candidate with the most money is not always the winner. Increasing the caps could at least give a financial David the chance to take on a wealthy Goliath.
Steven Allen Adams can be reached at email@example.com.