Legislature? What legislature? Oh, that legislature.

March 12, 2014

As the post-session parties finally start to wind down at midweek, there is an opportunity to evaluate the 2014 West Virginia regular legislative session. Scoring it from mediocre to … well, mediocre would be a fair tally it seems to me.

While legislators will praise their so-called accomplishments to the folks back home, there is little to show for 2014 besides rhetoric, tax breaks for the wealthy, and grandstanding on abortion and the clean-water issue.

Contrary to what any of your representatives tell you, there was virtually no leadership shown from anywhere during this session. The only obvious efforts remained leadership’s desire to strengthen its stranglehold on local delegates and senators. Aside from proving how powerful those in leadership really are, little else was accomplished. Tell your legislator to explain, in detail, what he or she did to improve the Mountain State during the past 60 days. Except for the possibility that their social lives improved, they will be hard-pressed to tell you anything. And I doubt that they’ll want to tell you about that.

West Virginia is not so successful that it can get by with no leadership for four or eight years. We suffered through the administrations of folks like Bob Wise and Cecil Underwood, who ran rudder-free ships. The legislature usually follows suit; letting the state drift so long as there is not a strong executive in the governor’s mansion. West Virginia has remained 50th among the states for a reason: its legitimacy has always been in question since the illegal separation from the mother commonwealth in 1863; and there is simply not a sufficient economic base here to maintain a state government of our own. If only it was “on to Richmond,” things would surely be better.

Be that as it may, this legislative session saw little activity of substance. It’s an election year, meaning representatives do not want to be seen as rocking the boat. If the voters back home will just give them another term, all will be merry and the inactivity can continue.

Again, I suggest voters look at their legislator’s record carefully before casting a vote for re-election in November. Just because you remember your senator’s or delegate’s name is not enough to mean he or she deserves your continued support.

… I honestly believe the protect-the-unborn-baby bill would never have been passed by the legislature if a public light had not been shined on the votes of coalfield Democrats. Every effort was made, both in the House and Senate, to bury the bill but leadership lacked the spine to complete the job. Too many Democrat votes were riding on some action by the legislature and everyone knew it. Thus, after tinkering and watering down the bill, both houses passed it. And, believe me, the bill passed is absolutely watered-down from the original that delegates would not discharge from the House Health and human Resources Committee.

I, frankly, admire someone like Kanawha Democrat Erik Wells, a senator who clearly made what may be his unpopular position clear. Rather than standing on the floor and/or calling constituents to tell them how he is really “pro life but …,” Wells stood up for what he believed in. He insisted that the bill, as passed, is unconstitutional and he may well be right. The argument is over whether a court will uphold the new standard of 20 weeks gestation proving that a baby can feel pain. Doctors who testified in both houses insisted that the more reasonable standard is 24 weeks of development for the fetus to actually suffer pain.

While I have no idea, medically speaking, which is correct, I do believe — as many do — that the baby is a human being from conception. There is no reason in my mind to argue over 20 or 24 weeks, when he or she is a living human at one second, one minute or one day. But I think Wells and his fellow senator, Democrat Corey Palumbo of Kanawha, firmly believed the bill is unconstitutional. They held their positions despite emotional opposition. They are to be commended.

Pro-life supporters obviously deserve credit, too. Legislative coordinator John Carey scored a huge victory with final passage of the watered-down bill, although he would clearly have liked more. He did a masterful job of patiently working with legislators and others to iron out provisions of the bill that were simply not going to be swallowed by leadership. His accompanying group of supporters did well, too.

Likewise, Margaret Chapman Pomponio and others from West Virginia Free and the pro-choice groups, worked long and hard in opposition to the baby-protection bill. In listening to debate on the subject, there is no doubt each side feels passionately about his or her cause, and I think they are all true believers in what they are saying. The pro-choice group enlisted the aid of OB/GYN doctors, who I also believe were sincere in their representations.

While the docs followed the party line that the baby-protection bill outlaws all abortions after 20 weeks of development, I can excuse them for not quite understanding the legislative process. Some pro-choice people, however, had to know the original bill continued to make abortions legal for nine months if the health of the mother or baby was at stake. Comments that the bill would “criminalize” all abortions past 20 weeks were just demagoguery (or is it democraticgoguery?) at its worst.

I can understand that doctors are worried that the new bill is just a first step in limiting their ability to treat their patients. But that is what they all should have said, instead of insisting that the currently-passed law makes all abortions after 20 weeks illegal. Similarly, that language, parroted in The Morning Sickcall, is not — and never was — true.

The biting exchange between Princeton OB/GYN Dr. Lori Tucker and Jenny Entsminger of the Cross Roads Pregnancy Counseling Center was just an indication of how emotions were on the abortion question. Appearing before Palumbo’s judiciary committee, Tucker appeared to be more emotional than most doctors I have dealt with. The sister-in-law of Sen. Greg Tucker of Nicholas County told those assembled she would likely not be able to get through her presentation “without crying.” She was right.

Tucker described in detail the problems she saw with the baby-protection bill and insisted she and other doctors have never successfully delivered a baby at 20 weeks. The 24-week cutoff is more medically-acceptable, she said.

While showing a great deal of emotion during her presentation, Tucker erupted in the audience when Entsminger responded to a question about whether she felt Tucker had “lied to the committee” moments before Entsminger spoke. Entsminger, a pro-life advocate, responded that she did not think Tucker had been truthful in her testimony. This brought screams from Tucker, who said she did not “appreciate being called a liar.” Officials had to admonish Tucker to remain seated and silent during Entsminger’s testimony. After Entsminger finished, Tucker was invited back to the podium and rushed there to challenge Entsminger for calling her a “liar.”

Entsminger appeared to remain calm during the exchange but later said she did not intend to say Tucker had been intentionally deceitful. She insisted she felt Tucker “believed” she was telling the truth, but her testimony was simply not factual.

For my part, I kept envisioning Tucker in a doctor’s office or hospital room attempting to counsel a 20-week pregnant woman (or any pregnant woman for that matter). If she becomes as emotional in the examining room as she did at the Senate hearing, her judgment could surely be questioned, I would think. Frankly, I have never seen another doctor behave as Tucker did in public. Her entire tone and mannerisms were strange — and a bit scary in light of knowing she is a baby doctor.

… Speaking of pro-life, I did take a look at the West Virginians for Life scoring of coalfield Democrats prior to some of them voting not to discharge the pain-capable bill from committee. Del. Harry Keith White of Mingo County did not have a 100 percent pro-life scoring position during his entire tenure in the House, as he said in emails and comments to constituents. He and his cohorts will now definitely not have a 100 percent record because they voted against the discharge motion.

Only Democrats Jeff Eldridge of Lincoln County and Rick Moye of Raleigh deserve credit for standing up for their pro-life beliefs on the floor when the discharge motion was offered. Only those two can really claim to be “100 percent pro-life” no matter what the others try to tell voters. I have doubts any of them will want to bring the issue up in the 2014 campaign.

But, again, I applaud those who voted “no” on the bill for following their true convictions. Some of the coalfield Democrats, for all their comments about being pro-life, would have liked to kill the bill right up to the last minute. They were afraid to do so, however, sensing the political ramifications.

As I suggested when the session began, abortion is a divisive issue and there is little political hay to gather for forcing the issue into the legislature. But pro-life proponents can justifiably be pleased that the baby-protection bill passed. It is, after all, a good first step.

… Del. White defended the handling of invitations to a joint fundraiser planned for him and Senate President Pro Tempore Larry Edgell this week. The invitation, featuring a a photo of White and Edgell holding snowballs while asking, “Tired of Winter?” was to be held Monday at what the pair dubs the “Smoke House” at 6 California Ave. across from the Capitol. The name being used is the same as the long-standing Charleston West Side restaurant, the Smoke House, but is not to be confused with that business location.

On the back of the invite, White and Edgell are holding what appears to be two bottles of drinking water, while adding, “Come party with us!” I won’t even address the irony of bottled water being displayed on an invitation to a party in a town where chemicals polluted the drinking water just weeks ago. There’s no point. But the real question is in the paid-for line on the card. It says, “Paid for by Committee to Re-Elect HK White. Public employees may disregard.”

When handed the invitation, I immediately questioned the secretary of state’s office concerning comingling funds from two different campaigns. As is typical with the current SOS office, no real answer was forthcoming. Then, I asked Edgell and White if Edgell’s campaign was picking up any expenses for the event or if it was all being paid for by White. Edgell said his campaign was expecting to pay half of the costs and “not listing us on the card is a mistake.” White maintained in an email response that it is “not unusual” for joint fundraisers to be held and he said his campaign will be listed as providing an “in-kind” contribution to Edgell’s campaign.

Although I am not saying anyone should be prosecuted for this invitation, I believe it is clearly wrong to list only one campaign. Where is the public disclosure issue? Doesn’t the public have a right to know who is paying for the mailing of political invitations?

Being a newspaperman makes me more concerned about public disclosure than most, I suppose, but this seems to me to be a flagrant disregard for the public trust and confidence. I will accept Edgell’s admission that it was a “mistake,” but White should stop trying to defend the indefensible.

… Meanwhile, Mingo Del. Justin Marcum appears to be pushing the envelope with the mailing of what appears to be his weekly legislative column to voters in the district. The mailing shows a photo of Marcum at the top with “House of Delegates, West Virginia Legislature” beside it. Then Marcum’s name appears with the indication he is a “D-Mingo.” To the other side, the address of the state Capitol is listed.

The mailing, which begins “from the desk of Delegate Justin J. Marcum,” lists a summary of three bills Marcum says he has introduced and “worked to pass” in the House of Delegates.

Then, Marcum tells constituents, “My fight to better Southern West Virginia will continue. I have also introduced legislation that will help save coal jobs, protect our 2nd Amendment rights, protect Seniors, and help teachers and education.”

Marcum then lists his Capitol email address and statehouse phone number “if I can ever be of any assistance to you … .”

… Mingo County. Where they can even argue about how and when to select poll workers. My, my.

The state law is clear and an election calendar issued by the secretary of state is even clearer. The last day to submit nominations for poll workers by county political committees was March 4. Because the majority of Democrat committee members thought Chairman Dick White was not going to call a meeting in time, they legally called one of their own for March 3. The committee people present picked poll workers for the five magisterial districts they represent. Two were left vacant because the committee members from those districts were not present.

Clearly, after March 4, it is eventually up to the county commission, and then county clerk, to choose poll workers. Only in Mingo County, perhaps, would choosing those folks be so monumentally important. One would think that, in 2014, a poll worker is just a poll worker who honestly does his or her job at the polls. Maybe; maybe not, apparently.

For whatever reason, White now wants to convene the party committee on March 14 to pick poll workers. That is absolutely after the deadline prescribed by law. In fact, it is 10 days after the deadline.

White told committee members in a letter that he was calling the meeting March 14 because “state Democrat officials” had told him the March 3 meeting was improper due to the Code Three state of emergency that existed that day. White told me by phone that the Gilbert Police Department “cleaned out their ticket book” writing citations for those who were driving that evening in spite of the order. But White could not tell me what “Democrat official” told him he could hold a meeting 10 days after the deadline. When told that state Democrat Chairman Larry Puccio and Party Coordinator Curt Zickafoose denied ever talking or writing to him about it, White would only say that a “Democrat official” told him the March 3 meeting was “illegal” because of the state of emergency and that he could hold a meeting on March 14.

Since the secretary of state’s office takes the position that campaign laws are “discretionary,” I’m not sure if anyone will choose to enforce the law in this case. But the March 14 meeting is much, much too late.

… Logan Delegate Rupie Phillips, a Democrat who would introduce an opossum bill if coal leaders asked him to, amended the safe water bill to help protect coal companies, according to some observers.

While there is no bigger coal supporter than me, nobody should be so beholden to any industry or segment of voters. Phillips, who wants to appear omnipotent, is just a lackey for coal officials. Perhaps that is what voters in his district expect, but I suspect former Del. Ralph Rodigherio and David Graham will have something to say about that during primary election season.

… Promises from political columnists are likely no more valuable than those from politicians themselves, but I hope to provide further review of the just-passed legislative session next week. As to the promise, I am hopeful of cutting down the length of the column since the legislature is done. Editors are all smiling. Promises … promises.

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