Hoppy Kercheval, Opinion

Confessions of a former W.Va. Legislature fanboy

Back in January, I wrote a commentary in praise of the West Virginia Legislature. Here is what I said: “Let me confess now that I am a fan” of the Legislature. I went on to write about the importance of real people — not professional politicians — collectively making decisions they believe are in the best interests of their constituents and the state.

The regular session wrapped up at midnight last Saturday and, looking back, I’m seriously questioning that fanboy stance. Here is why:

The legislature is in session too long, especially when there is a vacuum of substantive issues. That vacuum invites extended debate and arguments over bills that have questionable value.

This year’s void was filled with many culture war bills. One that stands out was the legislation that would hold librarians, museum curators and volunteers at those establishments criminally liable if they allowed minors to be exposed to material considered obscene.

No one logically supports giving obscene books to children, but I’m not aware of any instances where your local librarian is pushing porn on 9-year-olds. Thankfully, that bill failed to pass.

Another bill started as an avenue for science teachers to include intelligent design as a “theory” of creation. It was eventually watered down to say that teachers can answer any sort of student question about how the earth was formed, which I suspect they do anyway. That bill passed on the last day.

There was a lot of debate about the travel team bill. It would have allowed school student athletes to participate in travel team sports simultaneously. It failed, but for the life of me I cannot understand why West Virginia would need a law about such things.

I could go on.

According to the West Virginia Legislature website, lawmakers introduced 2,575 bills and 254 resolutions. Granted, most are never considered, but many are. That is a lot for a small state. Republicans have super majorities in both chambers. Once upon a time the GOP was for smaller government, but two months of lawmaking with hundreds of bills feels like too much government.

Then there is the last-minute horse trading. The House wanted a pay raise for teachers and public employees, but the Senate hesitated. The Senate wanted to change how the state’s unemployment program works, but the House was cautious. So on the last night, one was traded for the other and they both passed.

That’s good for teachers, staff and state workers who are low paid and facing higher health insurance costs, but it is unclear what the impact of the unemployment bill will be. That emerged from the Senate late and, according to Delegate Evan Worrell (R, Cabell), the bill had five iterations in the closing days of the session. Did lawmakers really understand the full impact of the bill that will affect thousands of laid off workers and tens of thousands of businesses?

I distinctly remember House Speaker Roger Hanshaw saying on Talkline the first day of the session that he wanted to pass legislation expanding childcare options in the state and make it more affordable. He said businesses that are coming here or are already here and growing want affordable and available childcare for their workforce. That would have been a practical next step for state government to encourage economic growth, but nothing passed.

I listened to the closing hours of the session Saturday night as the House debated the budget bill. Members rose to repeatedly try to clarify what was and what was not in the proposed spending plan. Lawmakers literally had about 90 minutes to try to understand a massively complicated document detailing nearly $5 billion in spending of public dollars.

Inquisitive legislators were told not to worry; lawmakers will probably come back in special session in May (after the primary election) and fix what needs fixing. What? Two months to get a budget and the plan is to come back later and sort it all out?

I don’t want to be overly critical of the legislature because in my time there over the past two months I have come to know many lawmakers who are good and decent people who are carrying out what they believe to be the reason they were sent to Charleston.

But something feels off to me. I sense an increasing level of disfunction that may be linked to one-party rule and the nationalization of our politics. Perhaps this session was a one-off, and the 2024 election will serve to re-calibrate our governing body.

This former fan will be waiting to see.

Hoppy Kercheval is a MetroNews anchor and the longtime host of “Talkline.” Contact him at hoppy.kercheval@wvradio.com.