Now that the state legislative session is officially over – or as over as it can get when we, once again, don’t have a budget at the session’s ends – hundreds of groups, advocates, and legislative watchers are doing the standard “What Just Happened?” debrief.
Here at The Hub, we’re having a wonder about it, too.
How did this legislative session shake out for community development priorities? Are communities better or worse off after 134 legislators spent 60 straight days making new laws for our state?
And, how about this: What if we focused the same amount of attention that gets put on the state legislature on the innovation potential that is possible at the local level?
Some interesting laws were passed in the state house this year that we hope will be helpful for West Virginia communities.
We’re excited to see the enactment of home rule expansion, increased hemp production, the farm to food bank tax credit, and – most urgently needed – broadband expansion. These policies will have a much-needed positive, and often immediate, effect on community development in our state.
Of course, these weren’t the only useful bills that were passed – and certainly not the only ones that were considered (we haven’t given up on increasing the state historic tax credit yet!)
But our fairly lackluster list is a symptom of this session. Despite the frustrations, the fights, and the colorful language that got us national media attention a few times, this session felt a lot like… well it felt a lot like the same old same old.
Is it just us, or does the West Virginia Legislature seem to have a bit of a Groundhog Day effect each year?
Every two years it’s a new mix of people, but somehow we seem to be stuck in just about the same place, doing the same thing, having the same fights.
Even the budget fight this year felt like, “Yes, of course we know how this story goes.” If this is our political theater, it’s lost a lot of its entertainment value for West Virginia residents.
This is not to suggest there isn’t a huge amount of effort being put in by all participants in the process. And certainly there were some surprising moments. The powerful and successful advocacy of Logan County Senator Richard Ojeda on medical marijuana was certainly an unexpected sub-plot this year.
And yet, it still felt like the same old song and dance, and we’re spinning around in circles here without much forward progress.
Is it the process, or is it the leadership? There’s still the argument out there that we need more voters engaged in deciding who we have making these decisions for us – and we need more candidates with innovative, fresh ideas running for office.
What we’re looking for from our legislative process is innovation, and a willingness to experiment and implement big ideas that we’ve seen work in other areas.
Perhaps the state policy-making process is not set up to lead to those types of outcomes. Perhaps instead of promoting innovation, it promotes taking cautious, minute steps forward one inch at a time.
But our local communities could be serving as laboratories of innovation – innovation that is happening every day of the year – and replicated dozens of times across the state.
There are 55 county governments and more than 200 municipalities in our state. These local government are addressing systematic challenges at the local and county level 12 months a year – not just for 60 short days.
Of course, these localities have been traditionally limited in the scope of what they can do legislatively to what the state expressly grants them the power to do.
This is why the expansion of the Home Rule program to include Class I-IV municipalities and to eliminate the 2017 program termination timeline is so critical. It is clear that our state legislative process has an extremely limited appetite for experimentation and innovation. But our municipalities have the ability to take on this charge, and to lead forward innovation in a way that drives investment, engagement and growth across the state.
Municipal leaders know best what their communities need, and they often have the energy, drive and vision to create the future that we are so very ready for in this state.
So, for us at The Hub, the 2017 legislative session has reminded us that while critical work happens at the Capitol each year, the most exciting innovation is happening everywhere else, and needs support over the course of the entire year, not just during the session.
We’re ready to get into that work with the West Virginia municipalities who are experimenting with innovation. Who’s ready to join us?