Friday, March 20, 2015

Business as Usual in West Virginia ...

This year was supposed to be different. No, I'm not referring to the Chicago Cubs and yet another failed season. I'm referencing the State Legislature in West Virginia. For the first time in decades, the Republican Party controlled both chambers of the legislature. They made big promises. Jobs. Education reform. Minimizing government interference in the lives of citizens. The GOP swore that they would stand up to President Obama (although I'm not entirely sure what was meant by that promise). Of course, that was November. I'm not a big fan of either major political party in the United States, but I was hoping fresh faces in our law-making body would spur some action from both sides of the aisle. Fast forward five months to the end of the legislative session in 2015 and like the Cubs, the reality didn't live up to the hype. 

Legislation that actually passed the legislature 

SB 347 – The Firearms Act of 2015. Anytime you attempt to legislate guns in the Mountain State, people start to get a little antsy. This particularly bill will allow a citizen to carry a concealed handgun without a license. Current state law requires a permit to carry a concealed handgun, and the regulation requires a $100 fee and a required training course on gun safety. The National Rifle Association (NRA) and their supporters believed these requirements to be an undue burden on the 2nd Amendment right to keep and bear arms. Advocates of the bill suggested that allowing conceal carry would allow law abiding citizens to keep up with 'bad guys' who already conceal weapons on their person. While I appreciate and respect the opinions of those who wish to carry firearms, the current laws about obtaining a concealed carry license do not represent a serious obstacle to those who wish to carry handguns. Even United States Senator Joe Manchin (D), himself a member of the NRA, has spoken out against the bill. 
A lot of nothing happening in the Mountain State capitol ...

Furthermore, the supporters of this bill have not considered the repercussions of this change to state law. Law enforcement organizations have urged the governor to veto this bill because of the problems that could result. What could go wrong? The fact that a license wouldn't be required to conceal carry doesn't mean that 'good guys' would be able to take out the bad ones any more than they already do. The impediments to obtaining a license to conceal carry are minimal. People who truly want to carry a concealed handgun probably already have the license. Also, people forget that West Virginia has permitted open carry of handguns for some time. If you want to better deter someone from being a threat to you, would it not stand to reason that having them actually see your gun would be more beneficial? We should also consider that if a 'bad guy' is caught with a concealed weapon (which they often are), they wouldn't even have to take any action before police could rightfully place them behind bars.

The lack of training required to conceal carry presents another problem. The only thing worse than a society where everyone is armed, is an armed society where people don't know what the heck they're doing with a gun. Buy a handgun, take it home, carry it around with a false sense of security and more bravado than Dirty Harry. Does that not sound like a recipe for a disaster? Are we really attempting to keep the police at even more of a deficit when they try to enforce the law? They will have to take concern with armed citizens who don't believe they deserve a citation.

Governor Earl Ray Tomblin wisely vetoed this bill, but the state legislature will undoubtedly resurrect this issue in the future. If they were still in session, I have no doubts they would override the veto.

Legislature's grade on the bill: F

HB 2568 - The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. Other than concealed weapons, no bill generated more emotion than this. The contents of this proposed law made it illegal for a women to have an abortion after the pregnancy eclipsed the 20 week mark. While I personally wish to see abortion laws altered so that no abortions can be performed at any point during a pregnancy, there is a problem with this particular bill. The law itself conflicts with the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, which prevents a state from blocking abortions during the first two trimesters of a pregnancy. Governor Tomblin was keenly aware of this conflict and followed through with his promise to veto the bill, on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. The legislature overrode the veto and passed the bill without his signature. I have no doubt that the bill will be challenged in courts and ultimately struck down.

 With this, the legislature will have wasted valuable time while neglecting the problems that can be fixed. The fight to end abortions can't be won in legislatures. It must be won through the court system, and through reaching out to women to convince them why having a child is a better option than ending a life.

Legislature's grade on the bill: C, because they're trying to do the right thing, but in the wrong venue.

HB 2797 - Changing Terminology of Legislation. This bill changes existing state law to alter the term 'mentally retarded' to 'intellectually disabled.' I wish I was kidding but this is the sort of issue that our state legislature is doing with its time. Yes, Americans have hijacked the term 'retarded' to be a verbal slam on people they think are unintelligent, but by the definition of the word, 'retarded' refers to a slowed growth of intellectual abilities. Is that not an accurate reflection of the term? Our level of politically correct terms in society has created a culture of generating euphemisms instead of being genuine. I liken this to when a Southerner looks at you and says "Bless your heart." We all know what they're really saying is that we are ... intellectually disabled?

Legislature's grade on the bill:  I, for incomplete.

HB 2010 - Changes to Election of State Judges. West Virginia, for some reason, holds elections to choose our state and local judges, including the West Virginia State Supreme Court. Why do we do this? I have no clue. HB 2010 makes these elections non-partisan, meaning candidates would not have primary elections, but they would campaign without a party designation for the general election. This is a step in the right direction for the state's judicial system, but the legislature needs to go further and make at least some judgeships lifetime appointments. This would allow judges to make decisions based on the law, and not concern themselves with pleasing the masses.

 Legislature's grade on the bill: B

SB 249 - Straight Ticket Voting. Simple and straightforward, this law eliminates straight ticket voting option from ballots in the state of West Virginia. Very much a good decision that was long overdue. If a voter truly wants to choose candidates from the same party, they have every right to do that, however they will not have to individually look at each position on the ballot.

Legislature's grade on the bill: A

SB 273 - Breweries and such.  The legislature did attempt to help some sectors of business. The growing popularity of craft beer and microbreweries in the state prompted the legislature to reduce fees associate with operating a brewery and ease some of the regulations associated with the industry. Hopefully this will lead to the increase of jobs.

Legislature's grade on the bill: A

HB 2007 - Alternative Teacher Certification. Because of teacher shortages in certain critical fields, the legislature crafted this bill to allow for more methods of becoming a certified teaching in West Virginia. Though the best way to train teachers is through specific education courses at an accredited college or university. However, the lack of teachers in Science and Math demonstrates that a critical need exists, especially in rural counties. By allowing those with degrees in particular fields to seek quicker means of certification, the state can fill teaching positions with men and women who have knowledge in their particular fields.

Legislature's grade on the bill: B

Things that didn't pass that should have

SB 453 - Changes to Automotive regulations. This particular bill would have altered existing law that would have permitted the Tesla Motor Company to operate within the borders of West Virginia. This bill was killed even though it would have been an opportunity to generate jobs. Traditional car dealerships operating within the state spoke out against allowing Tesla in the state, presumably because allowing more competition would cut into their own profits. Except Tesla's all-electric cars are, by their own admission, a niche market that wouldn't be much of a threat to traditional dealerships.

Well-known automotive names within the state, such as Bill Cole and Chris Miller, denounced Tesla because they don't operate a traditional dealership that provides services such as maintenance, repair, and other servicing. The consumers, according to their logic, would be at a disadvantage if they purchased a Tesla car. If this business model is such a poor concept, then why would traditional dealerships care if Tesla comes to West Virginia?

If Tesla's way of conducting business is as bad as Cole and Miller would have us believe, then Tesla would fail because they didn't respond to the market. I suppose wealthy dealerships and their owners only enjoy promoting few government regulations in the business world only when it works to their advantage. What happened to letting the market dictate who wins and loses? Aren't dealerships pushing the state legislature to 'pick winners and losers'? Thanks Obama. Another strange thought — would it not be a wise choice for West Virginia to attempt to attract Tesla since the company's cars run on electricity. I know Republicans campaigned on the promise of promoting the coal industry and unless something has changed in recent months, they still use coal to generate large quantities of electricity.

Legislature's grade on this bill: F, so much for Republicans opening the state for business.

Thank goodness these bills didn't pass

HB 2014 - Charter Schools Act of 2015. The GOP pushed the idea of charter schools as a means of education reform, claiming these types of educational institutions would allow greater flexibility in giving children the education they need. The idea of allowing schools to have greater autonomy within their curriculum is fantastic, but not at the price of sacrificing the due process rights of public school employees. The bill would have allowed teachers to have been dismissed at will, with no legal recourse. Notably, charter schools do not actually produce real gains when compared to traditional public schools. A 2013 Stanford University study concluded that while charter schools did perform slightly better than traditional public schools, those gains were only achieved through a longer school year. Perhaps the state legislature would be wise to consider expanding the school calendar from a 180 day school year to 200 days or more.

HB 2159 - West Virginia Firearms Freedom Act. Another gun bill, which was a shot (pun definitely intended) at the federal government, died in committee, but has importance for other reasons. This particular bill was similar to ones passed in other states, which essentially says the federal government has no ability to enforce firearms legislation that pertains to guns made within the state of West Virginia. The state legislature no doubt hoped to "stand up" to the federal government by asserting their 10th Amendment rights to state authority in policy areas not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.

The federal government has asserted that they have the ability to make laws about guns because they can be classified as interstate commercial activity (see The Commerce Clause in Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution). The state of West Virginia claims that any firearm manufactured, sold, or maintained within the state's borders are exempt from federal regulations because they are intrastate commerce. While the federal government has a very broad interpretation of what qualifies as interstate commerce, West Virginia or any other state is deceiving themselves if they believe they can enforce any piece of legislation like this.

Logo of State Legislature?
HB 2119 - Intrastate Coal and Use Act. This bill, like the aforementioned Firearms Freedom Act, sought to assuage the states' righters in West Virginia. The bill asserted that any coal mined and used exclusively within the state would be exempt from federal regulations established by the dreaded Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Even if such a law survived the state legislature and a signature by the governor, such usage of coal would be difficult (if not impossible) to track. Also, most of the coal mined in the state goes to out of state consumers. I don't know what this bill would hope to accomplish in the practical sense. Of course, this bill and the Firearms Freedom Act begin with a long winded diatribe on the rights of the state to assert their constitutional rights under the 9th and 10th Amendments, which means they're not about practicality.

What can we learn from the legislative session? 

Special interests still exert quite a bit of influence in the state. The National Rifle Association supported many of the Republicans who were elected last November and plenty of conservative gun legislation advanced further than it would have in previous years. Teachers' unions effectively pressured their friends in the state to kill the charter schools bill and most other educational reforms proposed by a Republican controlled legislature. Coal still has quite a few supporters in the state and though not all of the legislation passed associated with our black gold, it's clear coal is still king. The automotive industry muscled out a company that didn't even pose a serious threat.

Political parties are still polarized and hold grudges. The Republicans may not have passed everything they wanted to change, but they definitely attempted to display their contempt for the last 80 years of Democratic dominance in the state legislature. Besides the bills mentioned above, Republicans trotted out plenty of other conservative ideas, including making English the official language of the state, making sure the Pledge of Allegiance includes the phrase "under God" (was this ever seriously in question?) and altering social studies curriculum to make sure teachers could be fired if they taught socialism before teaching every single American document under the sun.

Democrats shouldn't act surprised at these sort of bills though. For nearly the last century, they've been dictating legislation in the state and Republicans have had to sit back and take it in most instances. Part of the agenda this session for the GOP: payback. And for the next few years, at least, conservatives have the high ground.

Legislators waste quite a bit of time on bills that really don't help the problems of West Virginia. The Republicans touted this as a session of legislature that would show how we are open for business. Yet, much of the legislation they passed didn't really do anything economically to help the state. They didn't set any records with the amount of legislation passed. Members of both parties were more interested in settling scores and posturing for their voting bases. Many of the bills introduced never had a chance to make it out of committee, but that didn't matter. As long as the individuals elected to office can look at their constituents and claim that they're 'trying,' then they will stand a good chance of being re-elected. Instead of the trite message 'open for business,' the real idea communicated to West Virginians is this: business as usual.

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