Depending on your perspective, you might have considered this year’s Legislature a success – a real, significant step in a positive direction – or you might have considered it a disaster. Here at The Hub, we don’t find ourselves in either camp entirely. It was, so to speak, a mixed bag.
Some things we liked
We were impressed that the new leadership had clearly identified priority policies. They came into the session prepared with a list of about a dozen bills they intended to pass this year. Not everything made it through that they wanted, and that was fine. But it is good practice for the leadership to be organized enough to know what they are moving forward as a body during the session.
Whether you agree with their policy priorities or not, having a coordinated party strategy for passing a slate of bills during the session helps to improve the legislative process and certainly put the session on a faster pace of activity early in the 60 days. It also seemed to push everyone else to pick up their pace and not waste the first 30 days of the session.
We also liked how seriously many of the new and returning legislators took their responsibilities as elected leaders to critically consider legislation before passing it. Watching dozens of floor session debates showed us that there is a robust culture of serious and, sometimes, scholarly debate that happens in both chambers.
Generally the House floor debates were much more lively and entertaining than the Senate debates. While the conversations often got heated, they generally stayed respectful. We’re your average Americans here at The Hub, so we do like a little drama and emotion thrown into our viewing experience. Some of the floor debates certainly provided that, especially on some of the most controversial issues like immunizations (a sleeper bill that emerged late in the session) and forced pooling.
Speaking of forced pooling, we really appreciated that members did think independently about some of the most heated issues and weren’t always willing to fall in line with their party when they disagreed. Forced pooling (a process of requiring landowners to sell their gas rights for hydraulic fracking if 80 percent of surrounding landowners have agreed to) was a highly controversial bill that many expected to pass. It was killed in the House during the final hours of the session Saturday evening by a vote of 49-49. There are 64 Republicans in the House, meaning that this vote was not along party lines.
This issue was one of the clearer demonstrations that there is a “hard-right” caucus within the Republican party that has a slightly different philosophy than the leadership. It surfaced towards the end of session that there is a “Tea Party/Liberty” caucus in the House Republican party that has organized itself and was providing some resistance to leadership on issues that ran contrary to Libertarian or Tea Party ideals. The power of this faction was significant in being able to kill or pass bills. It will be interesting to see how the caucus chooses to use its wedge power in next year’s session.
Some things we think need improvement
On a more negative note, we were pretty frustrated with some of the access to information challenges that the Legislature has still not solved.
Especially as the session went on, committee agendas were posted late (sometimes only a few minutes before the meeting started), were sometimes inaccurately updated and did not always reflect what was happening in the meeting. For full-time lobbyists who live in the halls of the Capitol for the session, this may have been par for the course. We think the Legislature can – and should – do better.
It shouldn’t be a full-time job to stay involved in the policy decision-making that happens in our state. Regular citizens should be able to access up-to-date information about what is going on in a timely enough process that they can participate if they want. We haven’t quite got there yet.
There’s a whole host of things that could be improved with those committee meetings (including posting the minutes from each meeting online), but a lot of what could be improved at the Legislature relates to technology. The staff has taken huge strides to bring the Legislature into the 21st Century and increase public access to what is happening at the Capitol, from providing audio live-feeds of each committee meeting to working with WV Public Broadcasting to provide video live-feeds of both Senate and House floor sessions each day.
If you miss those live-feeds though, there is no way to access those recordings after they happen. We’d like to see the Legislature take the next step and save those recordings for public listening/viewing after they happen. Even providing recordings of committee meetings and floor sessions on the website for a week or so would be a significant step in the right direction for public access to the Legislature.
Power of Participation
Finally, we were extremely impressed with the number of public hearings on various bills this year and the public engagement in those bills. The number of hearings and public participation in them was due in large part to organizations and citizen groups requesting hearings (which the House is mandated to provide if they are requested) and organizing the public to participate in.
After watching many of these hearings and the impact they had, it is clear that they sometimes worked. One major lesson we can take away from this session is that the Legislature is open to public pressure, if the public can organize themselves enough to speak out for or against an issue.
We saw this clearly with HB 2881, which would have eliminated all local ordinances barring discrimination against LGTBQ persons. The charter school public hearing was another interesting example. The public comments were much more mixed, with half the speakers in favor of charter schools and half opposed. This mixed public reaction resulted in one delegate suggesting that there should be a public referendum on the issue – a suggestion that went nowhere. But it did demonstrate that legislators are paying attention to what the public thinks about bills, and are often looking for direction from us on how to move forward on issues.
We’ll leave the last word with two very different opinion pieces. Over at the Daily Mail, they perceived the session as your average outcome, with plenty of public participation in the process (and used a pretty weak justification of saying that because no punches got thrown, the session was generally positive). The Charleston Gazette’s Phil Kabler did not have such a positive read on the session, questioning whether job creation and creating a better business climate were the real priorities this session.
What did you think about this year’s session? Let us know in the comments below.