Nothing surprises me in Charleston anymore, but I continue to be amazed at what happens in the people’s house.
PERSONAL INCOME TAX. Late on last Wednesday night, the Senate supermajority passed a personal income tax repeal by a vote of 18-16. It’s basically a hybrid of the Senate Republican plan and the governor’s plan. It increases the sales tax to 8 percent. We literally began debating it 30 minutes after it was introduced...with no numbers about how much it costs. It now goes to the House, where I don’t think it will be very well received due to tax increases in it.
BUDGET. Later that night, the Senate also passed a budget. It includes money for personal income tax reform, 1.5 percent across the board cuts, an increase of $4 million for the Supreme Court, a cut of $7 million to tourism, and cuts to all colleges and universities.
EMERGENCY POWERS. The legislature passed two bills dealing with the governor’s emergency powers. HB2014 requires that any federal emergency funds over $150 million which aren’t specifically earmarked must be spent by the governor and legislature working together. I voted yes. HB2003 limited the governor’s ability to extend states of emergency without legislative input. I voted yes. (Both of these bills came in response to the pandemic.)
DISAGREEMENTS OVER POWERS. When should the legislature be called into session during an emergency? The House version of HB2003 required the legislature to be called into session anytime an emergency lasted more than 60 days. The Senate version required the governor to justify extending an emergency to the legislature, but did not trigger an automatic legislative session. I supported the Senate version, because automatically calling this legislature into session during an emergency would be disastrous.
MINI-INSURRECTION. Because the House and Senate couldn’t agree on those two different versions, the bill went to a conference committee composed of three delegates and three senators. I was appointed by the Senate President to the committee. When we arrived at the meeting, over 30 delegates lined the halls chanting, yelling vulgarities, and attempting to intimidate senators into changing their votes. That isn’t how democracy works. I’m deeply disappointed in the disrespectful conduct of the delegates. Because they refused to compromise, the bill died and the governor’s powers remain unchanged. That is on their hands.
TRANS KIDS. Some bills give you heartburn; this bill gives me heartache. HB3293 prevents transgender children from participating in school sports. The bill gives me heartache because half of all trans kids strongly consider suicide. They are the most vulnerable citizens of our society, often subject to violence, bullying, and alienation because they are different. There have been zero issues with trans kids trying to gain a competitive advantage playing sports. This bill is unnecessary, and it’s also mean-spirited because it further alienates a segment of the population that attempts suicide at a very high rate. The legislature should let the kids play and keep politics out of it.
BROADBAND. Before this session began, I said broadband was my first, second, and third priority. Apparently, I was alone. The budget includes no money for broadband. We were able to get an amendment passed to get surplus money for broadband, but that’s not guaranteed. We are moving towards passing one broadband bill which will do some good things — consumer protections, defining “unserved” and “underserved” areas (which would help more areas access federal funding), “open access” provisions on polls/lines to increase options, and empowering the state broadband council. It’s helpful but not a game-changer, which is what we need.
DEAD BILLS. Several controversial bills appear to have died — the elections bill which moved early voting and purged voter rolls, the hospital certificate of need bill which threatened rural hospitals, the monuments bill which put the legislature in charge of historical monuments, and the bill which rolled back above ground storage tank regulations imposed after the chemical spill in 2014.
Next week, I’ll give a final and full wrap-up of what happens in the final days of the session. We are scheduled to conclude at midnight on April 10.
That’s the view from the back pew, where it is my privilege to serve you!
Senator Stephen Baldwin is the minority leader and a local pastor. Reach him at 304-357-7959 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram @BaldwinForWV.