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Op-ed: It’s time for West Virginia lawmakers to take action

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an extreme shock to our state, and we’re still wrapping our heads around how best to move forward through it.

This pandemic has affected every part of our society and government, and we’ve all been forced to adapt.

While Gov. Jim Justice has been exercising the emergency powers given to him by law to respond to disasters, now that we’re several months into a crisis that may well last into next year, it’s time for a more traditional government response.

It’s time for the West Virginia Legislature to be called into session to address the coronavirus pandemic.

Our state Constitution vests all lawmaking and spending authority with the legislative branch of government. Legislators are the most direct representatives for state citizens in our government, and we have a constitutional mandate to pass laws addressing this crisis.

This is no more apparent than with the $1.25 billion the federal government has given our state through the CARES Act.

Our Constitution requires the Legislature to appropriate taxpayer dollars in this state. While the governor has hired outside counsel to say he has authority to control the spending of federal dollars during an emergency, many of my fellow lawmakers and I believe this is skirting the process laid out by our founding fathers.

Every year our Finance Committee spends a month in budget hearings analyzing how to spend roughly $4 billion in state tax dollars. This CARES Act money represents more than one-fourth of our whole General Revenue Fund budget — and the governor is proclaiming he has absolute autonomy in how to spend it.

I simply do not agree.

The Legislature needs to be given time to review the governor’s spending proposals, ensure they line up with guidelines passed down by Congress, and appropriate these funds in the manner required by our Constitution.

The Constitution does not give the governor the authority to allocate the money, only to spend it — and he can’t spend it until we allocate it.

It’s time for us to do our duty. And our duties do not end with this money.

In addition to controlling spending, the Constitution also tasks the Legislature with providing a functioning school system. Article 12 says, “The Legislature shall provide, by general law, for a thorough and efficient system of free schools.”

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown our school system into turmoil. Every day I hear from parents, teachers and administrators concerned about how we can restart schools this fall.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and state Department of Health and Human Resources have been passing along a series of social distancing and safety guidelines to be implemented in schools. The state Board of Education and county school boards have been looking at these guidelines and trying to figure out how to implement them.

But when I look at these guidelines, I don’t see how they — as written — can allow us to reopen schools in a proper manner and as currently required under state education laws.

For instance, our laws require students get 180 days of classroom education. But places like Wood County have problems figuring out how to send students to school while obeying social distancing guidelines.

Some potential recommendations may include sending students to schools just two days a week, with the rest of the education done virtually.

When I look at schedules like this, it appears it would take 48 weeks to get in 180 days of class time as required by law — that’s basically year-round schooling, an issue I’ve fought hard against in my time as a delegate.

That’s just one issue where I believe the guidelines conflict with state law. Given how intricate our education laws are — for both student education and teacher and administrative requirements — it’s easy to imagine many scenarios where the health guidelines won’t comport with the laws on the books.

That’s why I believe it’s time for the Legislature to get back to work.

Normally the governor calls us in to special sessions, but the Legislature can call itself in by written request of 60 percent of members of both houses. If the governor won’t do it, I think we should call ourselves in.

These are extraordinary times, but we must not allow this crisis to be used as an excuse to abandon the Constitution.

It’s time for the Legislature to act, and if the governor won’t call us in, I say it’s time to do it ourselves and restore traditional, constitutional governing to the state of West Virginia.

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Del. John Kelly is a Republican from Parkersburg who represents Wood County’s 10th District in the House of Delegates.

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