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Reporter’s Notebook: Special session potpourri

Praise be, the special session for redistricting, COVID-19 relief dollar spending, vaccine exemptions and miscellaneous items is now over.

Lawmakers gaveled out sine die Wednesday night after the Senate dragged things out into the middle of last week over its senatorial redistricting map and a COVID-19 vaccine medical/religious exemption bill.

Despite Senate Republicans being held hostage by more conservative elements of their caucus, there was finally enough compromise found between the two factions to land on a map for the 17 senatorial districts kicking in for the 2022 elections.

Even the Democratic caucus voted for the plan except two, with 8th District (Kanawha/Putnam) Sens. Rich Lindsay and Glenn Jeffries being the lone nay votes due to the fact that the new senatorial district map splits Kanawha County between three districts when it is currently only split between two districts. Can’t blame them for that vote.

I won’t rehash what I wrote in last week’s column, but the divide in the Senate Republican caucus is plainly evident now. It’s not even being hidden. And I hate the one group being labeled as moderates and one as conservatives.

I’m guilty of this as well, but I’d argue that the group labeled moderate is what conservatives traditionally are, and the group labeled conservative are…well…I don’t even know what to call them. If you dropped some of them in a time machine and sent them to the 1980s, I’m fairly certain that conservatives of the Ronald Reagan era would not find much commonality with their politics.

For example, I always understood that conservatism meant not interfering with how a business operates. It was only a few years ago that conservatives stood with businesses who chose not to bake cakes for gay weddings. Now, lawmakers are passing a medical/religious COVID-19 vaccine exemption bill that is at best redundant and at worst a litigation nightmare for businesses.

After an amendment was added to the bill last week by Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, I’m not entirely sure the bill actually does anything. But that’s the problem: no one knows. The bill was written in such a broad and vague way that no one seems to know how it will be used.

“This is probably one of the worst, most poorly drafted pieces of legislation that I’ve ever read in my life,” said Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, during last Tuesday’s debate on the bill. Weld is also the vice chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Of note: Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, was a no on the bill as well. The top attorneys in the Senate Republican caucus wouldn’t touch the bill.

Religious and medical exemptions to COVID-19 vaccines already exist in federal law and rule-making agencies regulating workplace safety, but it largely leaves it up to businesses to develop processes for that. If a business denies a requested exemption, there are mechanisms to appeal that decision. House Bill 335, however, allows employees to submit a note from a physician or even just a notarized document in regards to religious objections.

The bill passed in a 17-16 vote with five out of 22 Republicans in the 34-member Senate voting no. The 23rd Republican, Kanawha County Republican Eric Nelson, was still out of the country on vacation last week. I don’t pretend to know how Nelson would vote, but he is usually lumped into the moderate category. Anyone, Republican or Democrat, would have rich fodder for a campaign ad playing on Nelson being out of town during two important votes.

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Some of the bills passed last week provide funding for several new broadband expansion programs launched back in June. That’s great and needed, but I’m still unsure why the governor’s office tried to re-package all this as a new $1 billion strategy. But media outlets in the state bit without bothering to read any of my stories about all of this since last year.

For example, Gov. Justice, Republican lawmakers, and candidates held a rally on the steps of the Capitol around this time last year promoting $1 billion in broadband funding over the next 10 years from federal, state, and local sources. This was around the same time nine companies were selected by the FCC for the first phase of Rural Digital Opportunity Fund dollars to expand broadband to unserved parts of the state.

And all of the “new” programs promoted last week by Justice in a press conference to promote the “new” $1 billion strategy I wrote about in June when the Department of Economic Development announced the specific programs to be funded through President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act.

The state is getting $136 million for broadband expansion (we haven’t received the funds yet as of two weeks ago) and part of $1.36 billion, half of which the state received a few months ago. In fact, Economic Development Secretary Mitch Carmichael has repeated these plans nearly every month since June during legislative interim meetings, including Oct. 10.

Again, I’m not being critical of the plans. I’m only pointing out, dear reader, that if you’ve actively read my stories on broadband over the past year, then you knew about all of this before it got trumpeted last week as something “new.”

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

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