Saturday, March 12, 2016

West Virginians should be furious about the lack of progress

West Virginia's State Legislature is nearing the completion of its session and the last three months have left me scratching my head in bewilderment at the audacity of our elected officials.  The legislature, dominated by the GOP, promised economic development and a path forward for the Mountain State.  Instead, they wasted time and we have been victimized by poor leadership, bad policy, and ridiculous rules.

The separation of power between the legislative and executive branches of government is always a precarious balance for any government, but West Virginia mistakenly has tilted the scales in favor of the legislative.  The governor has the authority to veto bills passed by the legislature, but those vetoes can be overridden.  Most states and the federal government require a 2/3rd majority of both legislative chambers to override a veto.  West Virginia, however, only requires a majority to override the veto -- which is the exact amount they needed to pass the law in the first place. 

If the bill passes, the governor's ability to veto is rendered almost meaningless.  The only true benefit in allowing the governor to veto a law is that he or she might delay the passage of a bill and hope the session expires.  It's a stall tactic.  As a result of this ability to override a veto, the state legislature is almost supreme in its affairs of the state.  Governor Earl Ray Tomblin has felt the sting of the state legislature numerous times this session after vetoing several controversial bills.

The state legislature passed legislation including:  a 'right to work' law, allowing concealed-carry of firearms without a permit, drug testing of welfare recipients, and a bill restricting abortions.  All of these pieces of legislation were passed without the governor's support.  Tomblin vetoed each one of them, and was at the mercy of the state legislature.

Regardless of one's political views pertaining to the bill, what's the point in having a governor if he or she has no real ability to affect the legislative process.  West Virginia is undermining the checks and balances inherent to any republican form of government. 

The problems in the state legislature include an enormous amount of time wasted on bills that were either not relevant to the problems of West Virginia, or were small measures that should have been passed without any hesitation.

In West Virginia, the current laws on legislation prevent anyone from purchasing alcohol on a Sunday before 1 p.m.  The so-called 'Brunch Bill' is a proposed law that would scale that time back to 10 a.m., allowing various establishments the ability to serve alcoholic drinks for Sunday brunch.  For reasons untold, this bill has taken an enormous amount of time in working its way through both chambers, and with only days left in the session, it still has not passed.  The bill has been amended so to require each of the 55 counties in the state to hold an election as to whether or not they individually wish to scale back the time frame.  I honestly can't believe I'm writing this paragraph because of the foolishness of this bill.  Is it really a problem that alcohol would be served three hours earlier?  Do we have to debate this and edit the bill to make a decision?

Another potential development for the infrastructure of the state came in the form of SB 315, a bill that would have created a fiber optic broadband internet 'backbone' to be owned and operated by the state.  This could have brought high-speed Internet to rural areas who struggle to be connected to the modern world.  It would have the potential to attract businesses to the state because of the high speed of connectivity that would dwarf any current Internet speeds available now.  And yet, the state did not see fit to let this bill escape a committee room. 

Perhaps the most humorous part of this legislative session came in the form of raw milk.  Advocates of the great taste and supposed benefits of drinking raw, unpasteurized milk managed to push legislation through that would allow sharing of raw milk.  I'm astonished our elected officials would waste time on a bill that allows people to ingest milk that has high levels of bacteria that can cause serious illness. The sheer insanity of this bill cannot be calculated, but it would appear that fate is not without a sense of irony.

In celebrating the passage of this law, several GOP lawmakers drank some of the raw milk.  Not too long after ingesting the milk, many of those lawmakers fell ill.  Though they insisted it was not the milk, national media outlets picked up the story and rather coincidentally, no one else seemed to pick up the mysterious illness. 

Chalk up another weird segment of legislative oddity to the fact that the state had to pass a bill that would make strangulation illegal.  How is it that in 2016 that strangulation was not already a crime?

A failed bill also would have allowed parents to have exempted their children from emergency school drills (designed to prepare children for active shooter situations). 

Because the legislature was too busy with raw milk and such, they failed to address the following problems:

  • Passing a budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year (which will probably need a special session at the taxpayer expense)
  • Fixing the Public Employee Insurance Agency's liabilities and drastic cuts that will cost the state's employees countless thousands of dollars that they do not have
  • Passing any substantial legislation that would help combat the epidemic levels of drug overdoses taking place in West Virginia.
  • Passing any substantial legislation that would create a positive climate for jobs

The demeanor and tone of any organization begins at the top.  A notable trend of the state legislative session is that Senate President Bill Cole (R-Mercer, 06) cares more about his own agenda than he does representing the people of West Virginia or his district.  As the Senate President, Cole holds sway over the legislative agenda within his chamber and appointments of members to key committees. 

Cole made it no secret that his legislative agenda for this year, when he told various groups at The Greenbrier, "What got advanced was virtually a page out of the playbook of the Chamber [of Commerce] ... It was exactly the Chamber’s agenda, as it should be. The Chamber represents businesses, businesses are the job creators."  Why would Cole believe that his position and the agenda of the state legislature should align with the priorities of the Chamber of Commerce and businesses?  Laws should be made for no reason other than the good of the people. 

Ironically, Cole didn't seem too keen in aligning himself with the interests of business during the 2015 legislative session, when Tesla Motors, Inc. was not permitted to sell cars in West Virginia.  I suppose it had nothing to do with the fact that he owns multiple car dealerships.  Perhaps letting the market dictate competition is only part of Cole's ideology when it benefits him.

Cole also has a knack for strange behavior, including the shady funding of his own campaign, where his auto business loaned his campaign over $190,000 for the last election cycle.  This means that he's not really self-financing his campaign.  Cole loans the money to his own campaign, which will pay him back at some point with other funds, presumably campaign contributions made by PACs or individual contributions.  The risk to Cole personally is minimal, since he would have spent the money on his election anyway, and he receives an advance of $190,000 that allows him a head start over numerous other candidates. 

The loans allow Cole's campaign to potentially purchase signs, buttons, shirts, etc. that can be sold to raise money, which then can be used to pay Cole back and the campaign essentially profits.  If any of the campaign money itself is used to purchase any good or services from businesses owned by Cole, then he's cycling that money back into his business and getting repaid for a loan.  This essentially is the same sort of shell game that Donald Trump is using to help defray the costs of running for president, only on a smaller level.

Cole's hypocrisy is also evident in the fact that he and other Republicans stalled their own campaign finance reform bill in the Senate last year after that bill was amended to require donor disclosures for 'dark money' groups such as Super PACs.  According to John Shott (R - Mercer, 06), the committee chairman responsible for tabling the bill, the request had come from Senate leadership, who were not comfortable with the disclosure requirements.  Oh, I'm sure they were not comfortable with the notion of West Virginians finding out who was indirectly funding campaigns of corporate cronies.

After this failed attempt at tinkering with campaign finance law in 2015, Cole and the Senate came back with the same ploy this year.  Many lawmakers had problems with Cole and other GOP leadership attempting to keep donor disclosure out of campaign finance, considering it's an election year and the new proposals would have gone into effect for the general election -- where Cole is uncontested as the Republican nominee for governor.

Additionally, the would-be governor has touted his desire to get the government out of the way, yet the GOP agenda pushed by Cole and other leadership in the legislature would add to the government.  This session alone, he pushed bills that would have added an intermediate court system to West Virginia, require drug testing for TANF welfare assistance, and require photo identification for voting.  These measures add to government.

If anyone would want to consider another reason never to vote for Cole in any election, please note that he recently spent a weekend at a Palm Springs retreat organized by the David and Charles Koch -- the conservative billionaire brothers who attempt to influence the outcome of elections at all levels of government.  In the 2016 election cycle, the Koch brothers have pledged to spend over $900 million to influence the outcome of races across the country.

Cole was one of seven elected officials who spoke at the retreat in Palm Springs, though his campaign insists Cole did no campaigning.  I suppose it was only coincidence that the retreat included 500 high spending political donors.

Bill Cole is a disaster waiting to happen and he is part of the problem with politics.  Please do not vote for him in any election.  He doesn't care about West Virginia or its people.  Cole's interests seem to be aligned with money and power.

This session has been a letdown for numerous reasons, and it's frustrating for the people of this state, many of whom are struggling financially.  More specifically, the state is facing some of the darkest times in our 153 years of existence.

Coal mines are being phased out.  Jobs and industries that benefited from mines are now leaving.  Drug abuse is soaring and the state ranks first in the number of per capita drug overdoses (and overdoses resulting in death).  Infrastructure is in need of repair and development.  This state needs genuine leaders and real solutions to its problems and we are not receiving them. 

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