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Reporter’s Notebook: Week seven at the Legislature

As we head into the final two weeks of the 2020 legislative session, let’s take a look at various odds and ends.

First, Sunday was the final day for bills to make it out of committee in the originating body. In order words, if you’re a Senate bill and didn’t make it out of a Senate committee by Sunday, then you’re a dead bill. Ditto for House bills that didn’t make it out of the final committee those bills were assigned to.

Underscoring how relatively uneventful the session has been this year, both the House and Senate wrapped up this week Friday evening. The next milestone in the life of the 60-day session is Wednesday, the final day for Senate bills to be passed by the Senate and House bills to be passed by the House. After Wednesday, both chambers will focus on passing each other’s bills and working on the budget for fiscal year 2021.

Many bills died horrible deaths by not making it past Sunday. In the Senate Finance Committee, 43 Senate bills remain trapped, including a tax increase for wind power generation and expansion of sports betting. The House Judiciary Committee saw 375 House bills die, including the effort to cut back legal advertisements in newspapers and the Campus Self Defense Act. If you were still holding out for the Fairness Act, you’re out of luck until next year.

These bill deadlines for legislation in state code mean that good bills sometimes die (the bills I cite above I have no opinion on. I just used those as examples). These deadlines also mean A LOT of very bad bills die, at least until they’re automatically re-introduced next year (a practice that really needs to end). It also doesn’t stop some lawmakers from trying to amend dead bills into still-living pieces of legislation.

Yet, despite these provisions, lawmakers often find ways to keep legislation they want passed moving by originating bill directly from their committees. I’ve noticed, especially the last two years, that lawmakers originate more bills directly from committees instead of formally introducing bills and making the texts of those bills available to the public.

Bills originated in committee are not subject to the state code provisions limiting what bills the House and Senate can review after certain dates, such as Crossover Day on Wednesday. That makes them convenient for committee chairs to push agendas all while avoiding early scrutiny. Unless a staff attorney is kind enough to give you a copy, originating bills are only publicly available once the committee passes the bill.

Former legislative staffers tell me this used to be a common practice, but former Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin and former House Speaker Bob Kiss curtailed this, preferring to only use originating bills for issues that just couldn’t wait. Now that the practice is back, lobbyists and advocates for transparent government, and reporter’s like me are not pleased.

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A vote Friday on an amendment to the Senate joint resolution that would free up the Legislature to lower or phase out certain property taxes doesn’t bode well for the resolution as a whole.

A Democratic Senator tried to amend SJR 9 to only apply to lowering or eliminating the property tax on motor vehicles. That amendment failed 15-17 with two absent. The absent Republicans likely would have voted no, making the vote 15-19. I won’t rehash all the details, but joint resolutions require two-thirds vote of both chambers, plus a vote of the public in a special election.

Republicans need 23 votes to pass SJR, which is up for passage today. That means three Democratic senators need to vote with the Republicans. Not only did they vote in a block, but they got one Republican senator — Wyoming County’s Sue Cline — to vote with them on the amendment.

This looks like a harbinger of things to come later today.

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So, if Senate Joint Resolution 9 fails (along with the accompanying Senate bill that has the business and inventory and vehicle property tax phase-outs and the raise of the sales tax and tobacco taxes), and the House once again says no to an intermediate court of appeals, what is the Senate going to have to show for itself this session?

Keep in mind, the anti-free market attempt to end greyhound racing failed last week. Is the Senate about to strike out on major public policy initiatives, including one that involves raising taxes in an election year?

The House, on the other hand, has had better luck. The foster care reform bill made it out last week. House Speaker Roger Hanshaw’s West Virginia Impact Fund bill passed Friday. A bill creating a sentencing commission to review bail and bond form passed the House earlier in the session. Bill dealing with prescription drug prices, including a cap on insulin prices made it out.

Even with the tantrum by Del. Eric Porterfield two weeks ago that threatened to slow things down, the House has managed to still get things done. Hanshaw might not manage his caucus well, but you can’t say the he doesn’t keep legislation moving.

Let’s hope the next two weeks move smoothly.

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

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