Saturday, January 23, 2016

Mountain State Madness in the Legislature

New year for the Mountain State -- same level of insanity from the legislature.  While some of the upcoming agenda does focus on the significant problems facing West Virginia, a sizable portion of the bills presented divert our attention and resources from the bigger issues.  While the agenda itself is concerning, so are the actions of a few of the legislature's members.

Let's start with the ridiculousness of Delegate Rupert "Rupie" Phillips, Jr. (D - Logan, 24) who decided to mock the concept of global warming by handing out bottles of sunscreen to his colleagues.  Because it was the day before the season's biggest storm, Phillips decided that climate change wasn't real.  He told the other members of the state legislature, "I worry about you. You’ve got global warming going on. It’s not cold outside. It’s in your mind." 

What was the purpose of this stunt?  Phillips is from Logan County, one of the traditional areas where coal mining has occurred.  The significant decrease of mining operations in the southern part of the state has devastated the area economically.  Most scientific studies stress that carbon emissions cause damage to the environment, which has led to different ways of generating electricity.  The coal mining communities refuse to believe this, and Phillips appears to be pandering to their denial of climate change.  His gesture was meaningless.

Of course, Phillips isn't the only member of the legislature to act so foolishly.  Last month, Delegate Eric Householder (R - Berkeley, 64) responded to a constituent on Twitter in a fashion that quickly turned a large number of citizens against him.  Gina Pratt, a teacher in District 64, asked Householder to put money into the state's public employees insurance program (PEIA).  The delegate posted several responses, telling Pratt ways in which she should cut her budget and find a second job.  Householder has subsequently gone quiet and made his Twitter account private.  Incidentally, Householder has yet to sponsor any legislation in the 2016 session thus far.

Part of the insanity of the state legislature stems from the switch in party control of both houses after the 2014 elections.  Republicans gained control of both houses for the first time in nearly a century.  As such, the GOP is attempting to strike while the iron is hot.  Their agenda is advanced because of the party flip of Senator Daniel Hall (R - Wyoming, 9).  Hall was re-elected to the senate in 2014 as a Democrat, and quickly switched parties not even a month after the election.  This broke a 17-17 tie in the senate and gave Republicans an 18-16 majority.  Hall recently resigned his position for a job with the National Rifle Association.

So what's on tap for the West Virginia legislature?  Lots of fun items.

SB 1 - The Establishing WV Workplace Freedom Act, aka "Right to Work" law - This in itself is a misnomer.  It would permit employees the right to refuse union membership as a condition of employment.  The bill would also prevent any person from being charged fees or dues as a non-union employee.  I appreciate the efforts to provide people with the freedom to choose not to join a group against their will.  However, I do not understand why the legislature seems so adamant about a law that has demonstrated it does not improve wages or encourage more business to those states.

The legislature should also take into account the 'free rider' problem, where non-union employees benefit from union activity, such as collective bargaining.   The United States Supreme Court has ruled that unions can charge a fee to these non-union members for those services (see:  Communication Workers of American v. Beck).  I don't know how the state plans to deal with that even if this law does prevent union membership.  (Note:  I think labor law might be one of the most difficult areas to interpret, so I can't claim to fully understand every aspect of this.)

Beyond financial motivations, there is the matter of safety and workplace standards.  States with right to work laws have higher incidences of accidents and deaths on the job than those without.  Currently, 7 out of the 10 states with the highest unemployment rates are 'right to work' states.  So, is this bill not merely a measure to diminish the power of labor unions?

SB 5 - Photo ID voter requirement - When taken at face value, most people would think this to be a good idea.  I mean, after all, no one wants another individual impersonating them at the polls.  That's wonderful, but this bill has failed numerous times in the state legislature, and with good reason.  First, the cost is inhibitive.  The West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy studied this issue in 2012-2013 and estimated that implementing this law would cost the state approximately $5 million. 

The law also doesn't make sense considering that since 2000, the number of voter impersonation cases in the country have amounted to less than 20 and none in West Virginia.  Anyone attempting to rig an election wouldn't use voter impersonation because the risk of getting caught is not worth it for just one vote.  Voter fraud is far more likely to occur in another capacity, such as tampering with ballots or purging people from the registration rolls. 

SB 6 - Drug Testing for TANF (welfare) recipients - Even on a practical level, this law doesn't make any sense.  Other states have implemented similar statutes and they have found it is not cost effective.  Conducting the tests would actually cost more money than what the state would save from cutting off recipients who tested positive. 

Also, let's consider the possibility that this law might not withstand scrutiny when challenged in the court system.  The state should consider the principle behind this.  By passing this bill, we would be saying that we should be suspicious of people simply because they are poor.  Someone struggling financially has done nothing to arouse suspicion that would warrant what amounts to a search of their body.

SB 9 - Creating a Court of Intermediate Appeals - I'm not objecting to the notion of a court of appeals on the basis of principle, but on practicality.  When an individual or group wishes to appeal a court ruling, they are able to send that appeal directly to the West Virginia State Supreme Court, and subsequently, to the United States Supreme Court.  This bill calls for these judges to serve as elected officials (a long standing problem in our state) and would create more government.  Ironically, the GOP often advocates how they wish to have less government.  Creating another layer of courts will only sap a budget that has a deficit of hundreds of millions of dollars. 

SB 143 - The Marshall/WVU basketball game - Senator Mike Woeffel deemed it necessary enough to sponsor a bill requiring these two schools to play in men's basketball.  Seriously?  Can't they work this out on their own or just not play.  I love sports as much as anyone but this has to be low on the priority list.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 5 - Sports themes abound!  State senators hope to name an Interstate exit after the late Bill Stewart, who coached the West Virginia University football team for three seasons.  You want to name an interstate exit?  After a guy who coached for three years, and was unceremoniously dumped.  Why do West Virginians have an obsession with naming every single bridge, road segment, overpass, underpass, outhouse, and interstate exit?  It's an interstate exit.

HB 2032 - Raises for principals in schools - This would raise salaries of school administrators by 3%.  As much as I like many of the administrators I have worked for, they are not the ones who need raises.

HB 2109 - West Virginia Firearms Freedom Act - The latest in many attempts to claim that any guns made and kept within state borders are 'intrastate' commerce and thus not under the regulation of the federal government.  How many guns are even made solely within the state?  And really, this is an attempt to 'stand up' to the federal government.  The bill invokes the 9th and 10th Amendments (states righters' favorites) and fails to account for the obvious truth:  the federal government is supreme in its affairs and can regulate guns. 

HB 2119 - The Intrastate Coal and Use Act - Same dang thing as the gun law.  This is an attempt to avoid federal regulation and it's a waste of time.  I know it's not easy to believe, but coal isn't coming back, and the president of Appalachian Power stated as much in a recent op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.  This bill and HB 2109 have many of the same sponsors, who proposed these bills last year, to no avail. 

HB 2184 - Discontinuing "Common Core" standards for schools - Guess what West Virginia?  The standards in Common Core aren't much different than the former West Virginia Content Standards and Objectives we had previously.  Most people object to Common Core because they believe the federal government created these standards, which isn't true.

HB 2250 - Sweet Treats Bill - I wish I could say I was making this up, but this bill would allow teachers to have snacks that have sugar in them during the holiday season, provided they get permission slips from the parents a week in advance.  Why is this a thing the state legislature is dealing with?

HB 2448 - Sale of Raw Milk - Why is this happening?  "Raw" milk by definition has not been pasteurized, and is a breeding ground for dangerous bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli.  This can make you dangerously ill.

HB 4028 - School Calendar - This bill would reduce the school year from 180 instructional days to 175.  Moreover, it would stipulate the school year could not start until September 1 and would be required to end on June 5.  Apparently, the people who sponsored this bill don't understand that our state schools are routinely disrupted by snow days, which would continually diminish teachers' ability to fully educate students.  Shrinking the school year helps no one.

Strangely, West Virginia lawmakers must enjoy license plates.  Three new types of plates are up for debate:  "In God We Trust", "Second Amendment", and "Family of an Officer Killed in the Line of Duty".

These bills tell us much about the state of West Virginia.

West Virginians believe the federal government is the source of all their troubles and that's not true.  People in the Mountain State are struggling to find good paying jobs.  Substances abuse is higher than ever, with more serious drugs than ever.  Keeping the state's talented young people here is becoming more difficult.  I understand that we are at a more critical point in West Virginia's history than ever before.  But the federal government is not the enemy.  The level of employees in the coal industry has been declining for a long time and we have to blame ourselves for not preparing for this inevitable day. 

Federal regulation exists for a reason.  We wouldn't need an Environmental Protection Agency if we actually took care of the earth that we all inhabit.  The Food & Drug Administration is there to prevent us from ingesting substances that would otherwise harm you.  The Mine Health & Safety Administration helps the working individuals here and in other states.  Do you really think these organizations sit around and plot the destruction of West Virginia? 

Also, please remember that West Virginia benefits greatly from federal tax dollars in the way of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, TANF benefits, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Programs (SNAP), and several other federal grants.  This doesn't include retraining and education programs created by the federal government to help people in the coal industry find work in other fields.

The Republican party is as hypocritical as the Democrats.  The state's GOP is doing everything they can to convince people they want less government.  That's right, get government out of your way!  That sounds good when taken at face value, but many of their proposals for this legislative session seem to do just the opposite.  They're adding government and layers to state agencies by  creating a system of intermediate courts, forcing two schools to play a basketball game, implementing a photo identification system, and drug testing a large swath of the citizens.  The state of West Virginia is our biggest employer and the GOP seems content on adding more to that.

The members of the legislature who make you believe they can 'stand up' to Obama and the federal government are lying to you.  Despite bills that promise the freedom to avoid federal regulations on guns and coal mining, the state cannot subvert legislation from the federal government.  The federal government has plenty of ways to enforce their will and cutting grant money would absolutely cripple this state.  The Supreme Court would most likely strike down any of the laws that attempt to assert 10th amendment rights.

West Virginians do not seem to pay attention to what their representatives are doing.  Denying the science on global warming?  Okay, that would be your prerogative.  But grandstanding on the floor of the House of Delegates is beyond ridiculous. 

Misleading your constituency by running as a Democrat and flipping parties immediately after being elected?  Shady.

Attempting to denigrate a public school teacher for being angry about her health insurance being dramatically cut?  Jerk move.

Sponsoring bills that are trivial in nature, but make the masses happy?  Wasting time.  The economic troubles and drug problems will not go away because we can place clichés on our license plates or name an interstate exit after a coach that WVU fired. 

This is our state legislature.


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