BY: TAYLOR BENNETT, POLICY COORDINATOR, THE HUB
In the midst of this historic moment for teachers, public workers, and for labor rights in West Virginia, we’re asking:
How does the Legislature function when it’s been taken over by a single issue?
While the plight of teachers and other public employees has gained more attention this year than most issues often do, it’s not unusual for a single issue or bill to become the primary focus of lawmakers, interest groups, and the general public during a Legislative Session.
So, is the system designed to function well when this happens?
In some ways, the Legislative process is set up to offer many opportunities for legislators to attempt to address issues that take the spotlight. As legislators look for ways to generate revenue for the state, they can also allocate where that revenue will go. In this case, they could choose to put those funds towards the Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA) and provide teachers with desperately needed raises.
While the system offers these opportunities for action, it’s also easy to manipulate it when everyone’s attention is drawn to a particular issue. This week saw a very heated example of this play out on the Senate floor.
SB 398 was under review by the Senate Committee on Banking and Insurance last week. It would allow consumer lenders to charge a startlingly high 31% interest on a greater number of loans. Currently, they are allowed to charge 31% per year on loans up to $2,500. If this bill becomes a law, they would be able to charge 31% per year for loans up to $3,500.
Opponents of the bill are concerned that it would enable predatory lenders to take advantage of people whose precarious financial situation makes it necessary to rely on loans of this type.
The bill was killed in the Banking and Insurance Committee, with a majority of committee members voting not to advance it to the full Senate. However, the chair of that committee, Senator Azinger of Wood County brought up the bill for further discussion at a subsequent committee meeting, even after the votes had been cast.
This isn’t against the rules, if a committee member has a question about the verbal “yeas” and “nays” given in a committee meeting, the Chair can opt to review the bill and potentially call for another vote before the full committee.
The problem in this case was that a Natural Resources Committee meeting was occurring at the same time as this second Banking and Insurance meeting and many of the Senators who had voted “nay” on SB 398 were attending that committee meeting where they were discussing SB 270, a bill related to timbering in state forests.
While a majority of the Senators who had voted down the bill were attending the meeting of the Natural Resources Committee, the remaining Senators in Banking and Insurance held a re-vote and determined that SB 398 be advanced for review by the full Senate.
When the bill was up for a 3rd reading on the Senate Floor (time: 11:54:09), Senator Prezioso of Marion County (who is a member of both committees) appeared genuinely shocked that the bill had been advanced out of committee after being voted down. He addressed the Senate, arguing that this kind of “backroom” dealing was an improper use of a process which should provide an equal opportunity for all representatives to do the job they are elected to do: represent their constituents’ interests as they determine whether or not to pass proposed legislation.
Following an early and vocally contested end to the floor session related to Senate leadership’s unwillingness to continue business while a large contingent of teachers was present in the gallery and at the Capitol, Prezioso confronted Azinger about this manipulation of the process and physical violence almost broke out in the Senate Chamber.
SB 398 passed through the Senate on Monday, even after a majority of committee members voted it down.
In this instance the committee process, which is supposed to prevent legislation like this from ever making it to the floor, was manipulated to ensure that it didn’t function as intended.
Our legislative system may present a number of opportunities to deal with urgent issues, but it is also offers opportunities for those in positions of power to work the system to the advantage of an interest or political party.
As focus zeros in on issues of incredible importance, like the daily struggle of teachers and other public workers, the watchful eye we keep on our legislative process needs to be even more intense than ever.
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