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Reporter’s Notebook: Week six at the West Virginia Legislature

We are less than 20 days away from the end of the 60-day legislative session, or more than two-thirds through and what I predicted last week is happening.

As the old saying goes, idle hands are the devil’s workshop. With really the only big agenda items left being Gov. Jim Justice’s tax plan and the budget bill, lawmakers are pushing through bills sure to please social and religious conservatives.

In times past, even with a Republican majority, these kinds of bills would be introduced with no expectation they would ever be taken up in committee. Lawmakers introduced these kinds of bills usually to put them on campaign literature and signal like-minded supporters to gain votes.

But now, you have bills making it through the process that normally halt the process. Take the monuments bill for example. Sure, there is a national debate about various kinds of monuments and some of those debates are silly. Taking down statues of Abraham Lincoln and even Frederick Douglas? I think most people can agree that the woke are going too far with those removals.

But is there a great outcry for removing monuments in West Virginia? There doesn’t seem to be. The most controversial monument you hear about is Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

There is a statute dedicated to him on the grounds of the Capitol that some in the city want to see removed. There is also a bust of Jackson in the lower rotunda and a school named for him in Kanawha County. That doesn’t even include all the monuments and tributes to Jackson in Clarksburg, Jackson’s hometown.

House Bill 2174, the West Virginia Monument and Memorial Protection Act, would prohibit the relocation, removal, alteration, renaming, rededicating of statues, monuments, memorials, schools, streets, bridge and parks named for historical military figures, units, and actions on public property owned by the state, counties, and municipalities.

The bill’s prohibitions cover everything from the French and Indian War in the early 1700s to Operation: Iraqi Freedom in 2004, including monuments for labor movement leaders, black civil rights leaders, native American history, natural and man-made disasters. But this is West Virginia and most of our monuments are Civil War monuments.

West Virginia and the Civil War are complicated issues. There is no West Virginia without the Civil War. Without Virginia joining the Confederate States of America, the Reformed Government of Virginia doesn’t organize in Wheeling. From there, those gentlemen created the State of West Virginia and President Abraham Lincoln made it official. With that said, there were a great number of West Virginians who either had Confederate sympathies or even fought for the Confederacy. A number of West Virginians owned black slaves and didn’t want to see that interrupted or interfered with.

As has been pointed out by others, Jackson didn’t live in West Virginia and didn’t even know what West Virginia was. He wasn’t memorialized around the state until the Jim Crow era by the Daughters of the Confederacy who raised money to put up monuments.

I’ll confess, I don’t quite understand some people’s love of Confederate icons. Maybe it’s because I’m from the northern part of the state and therefore a “Yankee.” I grew up a Civil War history buff, but I was always a Union supporter. I had two friends from Clarksburg who used to participate in Civil War reenactments as Confederate soldiers, and I used to give them grief. They didn’t just pick the Confederacy because that was the role; they did it because they believed in the cause.

I’m probably going down a rabbit hole here, but I think I’m still making my point: monuments are complicated things and people’s feelings change based on the times. Shouldn’t it be up to local communities to decide the fate of monuments?

In HB 2174, monuments would only be able to be moved upon petition to the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office. House Government Organization Committee Chairman Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, tried to sell this as a positive thing, though it could be considered by some as another example of Republican lawmakers trying to centralize control of local decision-making in Charleston.

HB 2174 is not the only culture war bill moving. The House Education Committee originated a bill preventing transgender student-athletes from playing single-sex sports except for the gender as found on their birth certificates. The House Health Committee moved a bill for women who take part in a chemical abortion (an abortion that requires two pills) to be given information about how to stop the abortion even though that advice appears to be medically dubious.

These bills will score you points with the base, but they appear to be solutions in search of a problem.

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

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