WVCAG: Gosh, What A State Of The State!

Playing “Chicken” With The Budget
Opinion
By Gary Zuckett
WV Citizen Action Group

We’re less than a week into the 2017 legislative session, and things are already crazy!

Beth Vorhees of WV Public Broadcasting tweeted mid-way through Governor Justice’s first State of the State address that it was the most “entertaining ever.” I believe that was even before he proposed cutting every dollar of state funding for our Educational Broadcasting Authority (West Virginia Public Broadcasting) – all $4.6 million! This and other cuts to education and arts were proposed after the governor told us we had to protect our support for dog and horse racetracks, which are allotted more state money than all the total arts and educational cuts he proposed.

Our new governor’s “aw shucks” down-home style belied the seriousness of his message – that we’re deep in a “dog mess” of a budget crunch and that cuts alone will not get us out of trouble. His approach of suggesting short-term tax increases on both consumers (1/2% sales tax) and business (2/10% gross business tax) to upright our budget makes sense. His bold proposal to raise the gas tax and other auto fees to fund a bond sale that would put people to work fixing our aging roads and bridges deserves serious consideration. This would need approval by both the legislature and voters. Of course, the devil is always in the details.

He “Loves Trees, Streams and Fishing” and stuff like that…

The environment got an honorable mention, but just in passing as the governor told us that the Department of Environmental protection would have to “Stop saying NO” to poor old industry. He didn’t mention the DEP’s stealth deletion (at the request of big oil and gas) of an air quality permit rule that would make oil and gas pay attention to how much of a nuisance their compression stations were to the local neighborhoods. This was right after new DEP Secretary Caperton also fired the Environmental Advocate who evidently was doing too good a job interacting with concerned citizens. Can you say, “Wrong direction DEP!”?

Playing “Chicken” with the Budget

Legislative leadership has declared much of the governor’s ambitious budget D.O.A., so it will be up to them to figure out how to slash $500+ million or invent ingenious ways to raise revenue without calling it the “T word”. This leaves you and me and the rest of our states’ citizens in the middle of a very expensive game of “chicken”. Connect with the WV Center on Budget and Policy’s ProtectWV.org campaign, and send a message to your lawmakers that we can’t cut our way to prosperity and they need to fund all essential and socially productive functions of our state, no excuses!

Bills, Bills and More Bills

Friday was day three of the 2017 legislative session, and the House is winning the race to introduce the most bills at 334 vs. the Senate’s 261. Of course, the House has nearly three times the number of members so they have an advantage. Many of this first flush of legislation are “rules” bills that have been offered by state agencies to outline how they will implement prior legislation. The rest run the gamut from “modifying the definition of a terrorist act” (SB 66) to restricting safe and affordable access of abortion care (5 bills on just the first day!) to “authorizing the medical use of cannabis-based pharmaceutical products” (HB 2071). It’s a challenge just to keep up with the daily deluge of new bills!

Just because a bill is introduced doesn’t mean it will get taken up by its assigned committee. Committee chairs hold virtual life and death power over which bills they will actually put on their agendas. Many a good (and lots of terrible) bills die through this not-so benign neglect.

Locating the bills affecting your issue is just the start. Then you have to keep track of them as some move quickly and others, as we noted, have their feet set in a bucket of cement. This is where the really well done legislative web page is essential.

Your State Government is Now Live Online

Citizens these days have access to powerful tools to keep abreast of the legislative process. First up is the legislative web page where activists can look up bills introduced, track bills they are interested in watching, see daily committee agendas, and get updates of legislative action. Additionally, most major committee meetings can be listened to online and floor sessions and public hearings can be viewed via live streaming from this site (courtesy of WV Public Broadcasting – remember the governor wants to totally cut their funding!). Take some time to explore this site and you’ll be impressed at what it can do. Call legislative services if you have questions on specific functions – 304-347-4836.

WV Public Broadcasting (at least for this session) has an excellent half hour show called the Legislature Today broadcast on radio, TV, and streamed online every weekday during the session. They even have an app you can download into your pocket computer formerly known as a cell phone. For political junkies like us, it’s a valuable way to stay current with the two-ring circus under the big dome.