Reporter’s Notebook: West Virginia legislative potpourri
The September legislative interim meetings start this morning, as does the resumption of the special session.
You thought that was over? Nope. The special session for “education betterment,” called by Gov. Jim Justice the day after the 2019 legislative session ended on March 9 after he lost his pay raise proposal for educators and the senate lost its omnibus education bill, is still in session.
The “education betterment” portion of the special session is over, since the House of Delegates pushed through HB 206 in June — the new and improved education omnibus bill. I won’t go into all the bill does again, but it does provide increased funding for county school system, hiring incentives for high-need subject fields, and the dreaded charter school provision.
That reminds me, the West Virginia Education Association filed a 30-day notice of their intent to sue the state over HB 206 on July 20. Correct me if I’m wrong, but August 8 would have been 30 days. It’s now been 76 days since the WVEA rattled its legal saber. I talked with Attorney General Patrick Morrisey last week, whose office would have to defend the state should WVEA file suit. He hasn’t heard as much as a peep.
Of course, WVEA can still file suit at any time. But will they? County school systems are already reporting benefits from being able to hire more support staff to help students with mental and emotional needs. I’m told some counties are having a slightly easier time hiring teachers. And while it can’t happen this year anyway, it doesn’t sound like we’ll see even one charter school during the first three-year window.
It’s very possible between now and the next election we’ll see even more success stories tied to HB 206. I imagine the unions are watching closely to see if what the political ramifications would be if they fought HB 206 now.
So, if “education betterment” is over, what is there left to do in the special session? The house adjourned sine die (a fancy Latin word for “completely done”) in July after the legislature passed the tax break for First Energy Solutions to save the Pleasants Power Plant. Only the state Senate remains in special session.
The senate still has to approve confirmations — appointees by Gov. Justice to various boards and commissions. The top of that list is Byrd White, the interim secretary of the Department of Transportation and now the Commissioner of Highways now that Jimmy Wriston — who had that title under White but was recently named the deputy commissioner of highways so that Wriston wouldn’t take a pay cut as the official commissioner.
White may run into issues during his confirmation — specifically regarding qualifications and residency. White has a two-year engineering degree from what is now WVU Tech, but there isn’t much evidence he’s used that degree. He’s mostly worked for Gov. Justice’s businesses in finance and management roles.
State code, on the other hand, requires the commissioner of highways “be a person who is experienced in highway planning, finance, construction, maintenance, management and supervision qualifying him for the duties of his office.”
Does the management of a Justice-owned Beckley nightclub and one of the many Justice-owned business entities count? That’s up to senators to decide. State code also requires the commissioner of highways to live in Charleston. We already know how seriously the Governor takes his residency requirement. But this will give the senate a chance to show how seriously they take residency.
Trenton Barnhart, the newly appointed Republican delegate for Ritchie and most of Pleasants County, will be sworn in this morning at 9 a.m. in the House of Delegates chamber.
I was surprised at his appointment at first. Not because of his age, as the 22-year-old Barnhart isn’t even the youngest person to be elected or appointed to the house in recent years. As a University of Charleston graduate who has interned, then later worked for several government entities in the Capitol, Barnhart has more experience coming into the house than some of the other younger delegates who serve or have served.
I just assumed Justice would go with experience and put former delegate Woody Ireland back in his district’s seat. I’m told though that some natural gas companies were not happy with his efforts get forced pooling passed, which failed with both Republican and Democrat lawmakers joining against the proposal.
Kathie Hess Crouse, a home and private school advocate from Putnam County is officially announcing Tuesday her campaign as a Republican for the 8th Senatorial District covering eastern Putnam County and northern Kanawha County. It’s the first Republican rollout for a senate race since Del. Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, announced for the 17th District nearly six months ago.
The state Senate is on shaky ground. With a 20-14 Republican majority (and with two Republicans crossing over to vote with Democrats against education reform), Democrats only need to take three seats to tie the senate 17-17, and if one of those two Republicans are swayed, you could see a Democratic senate president for the first time since 2014.
One of those senate seats at risk is District 2, with state Sen. Michael Maroney, R-Marshall, facing criminal charges for allegedly soliciting a prostitute. He pleaded not guilty, but best believe his text messages will become fodder in the next election.
I hear at least one other Republican senator might choose to run for a county office instead. There are also any number of competitive seats up in 2020. Even Senate President Mitch Carmichael is being primaried from his right by Del. Jim Butler, R-Mason.
The West Virginia Republican Senate Committee might have its work cut out for them.
Steven Allen Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org