League of Women Voters, Opinion

Rules exist for a reason

“Republic” refers to a government in which citizens elect representatives to govern according to the law. Thus, the supreme power of a democratic republic resides not in the legislative body, but in its citizens.

At 4 p.m., Aug. 6, 2023, Gov. Jim Justice gave notice that the Legislature would convene in special session as of 6 p.m. The Legislature then proceeded to pass 27 bills in a two-hour floor session. That is one bill every 4 ½ minutes.

This can happen because the legislative supermajority has the power to override the West Virginia Constitution (Article VI, Section 29) requirement for reading of bills: “No bill shall become law until it has been fully and distinctly read, on three different days, in each house, unless in a case of urgency, by a vote of four-fifths of the members present, taken by yeas and nays on each bill, this rule be dispensed with: Provided, in all cases, that an engrossed bill shall be fully and distinctly read in each house.”

Having the power and wielding it are different things. The state constitution (Article 1, Section 3) warns of consequences that: “The provisions of the constitution of the United States and of this state, are operative alike in a period of war as in time of peace, and any departure therefrom, or violation thereof … is subversive of good government and tends to anarchy and despotism.”

Having any supermajority suspend constitutional rules, especially the three-day rule appears to resemble the phenomenon of groupthink.

According to Psychology Today, “groupthink triggers decisions that aren’t ideal or that ignore critical information. In highly consequential domains — like politics — groupthink … can lead groups to ignore ethics or morals, prioritize one specific goal while ignoring countless collateral consequences.”

Allowing sufficient time for bills to be read, understood and fully discussed by the entire governing body brings diversity of thoughts and beliefs and allows time to identify potential flaws. When expedited bills are not run through the committee process, the potential for harm could be a side-effect.

Our Legislature is accumulating numerous examples of drafting errors becoming law due to unwarranted speed, such as how rushed legislation caused the need to clarify the personal property tax deduction law.

The Legislature’s failure to align its priorities to constituents’ is also evidenced by the elimination of 28 academic majors and 143 faculty positions at WVU after 10-plus years of budget cuts. Redistribution of K-12 public school funding to private academies is certain to have collateral damage. Other consequences of funding shortfalls include closing local fire departments, resulting in higher homeowner insurance premiums, and shuttering local EMS, which reduces security in our communities.

What kind of republic do we have in West Virginia? Does power reside with our citizens? Citizens deserve to have their legislative representatives adhere to the constitution of this state, represent their interests and be transparent in what they do. Transparency so essential that it is specified in West Virginia law.

The Freedom of Information: Declaration of Policy (W.Va. Code, Chapter 29B) states: “… it is hereby declared to be the public policy of the State of West Virginia that all persons are … entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”

Transparency, discussion, divergent debate, adherence to rules and compromise are expected from our government officials at every level. When any of these are removed from the equation, then the government fails to serve “we the people.”

The League of Women Voters is dedicated to promoting informed and active public participation in government. It is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that neither supports nor opposes any candidate or political party. The League is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion in principle and practice. Membership is open to all persons (not just women) ages 16 and older. To join or find more information, go to https://lwvwv.org/