CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Two key parts of the Republican-controlled Legislature’s agenda passed during the fourth week of the 2016 regular session – although Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has indicated he will veto both bills.
The most divisive was a bill to make West Virginia the 26th state to enact a right-to-work law, allowing employees in union shops to opt out of paying union dues and fees (SB1).
The House of Delegates passed the bill 54-46 on Thursday after nearly five hours of heated debate.
Opponents saw the bill as a way to weaken labor unions and cut wages, while proponents cited the state’s dismal economy as a reason to see if right-to-work will attract new business to the state.
“We can’t live in the past. It’s not working, we’re going down the tubes fast,” said House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, who conceded right-to-work would not be a “silver bullet” to fix the state economy.
“This is not going to be the cure-all,” he said.
While committee votes on right-to-work split down party lines, ten Republicans joined with the 36 Democrats in the House to vote against the bill on Thursday.
Tomblin immediately announced he will veto the bill, noting it had received “bipartisan opposition but only partisan support.”
“I remain committed to growing West Virginia’s economy, but I do not believe right-to-work legislation is the best way to do that,” Tomblin said.
However, legislative leadership fast-tracked both the right-to-work and a companion bill to repeal the state’s Prevailing Wage Act (HB4005) to allow ample time to override the governor’s expected vetoes of both bills.
The Legislature, which reaches the midpoint of the 60-day session on Feb. 11, needs just 51 of 100 votes in the House, and 18 of 34 votes in the Senate to override gubernatorial vetoes.
Also Thursday, the prevailing wage repeal bill passed the Senate on a party-line 18-16 vote.
As with right-to-work, advocates of the bill cited the current weak economy as evidence the status quo is not working.
“Socialistic tendencies to guarantee outcomes has not worked, and West Virginia is a classic example of an economy in decline,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said. “We have to change how we do business in West Virginia, and taking on hard or confrontational issues is what we should be doing.”
Several Democrats questioned why the Legislature is focusing on divisive, partisan issues when the state is facing major budget deficits, and crises in road building, job creation and health care.
“I would submit that we continue to fiddle while ignoring the real problems affecting the lives of the citizens of West Virginia,” said Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, alluding to the story of Roman emperor Nero fiddling while Rome burned.
Others noted that the Legislature just last session made major changes in the state’s prevailing wage law, including shifting authority for determining the wage rates paid for major state-funded construction projects from the Division of Labor to WorkForce West Virginia, and suggested the new law should be tweaked instead of being repealed outright.
Also at the Capitol:
— A series of amendments are pending on the House floor to a bill that would allow persons over age 21 to conceal carry firearms without obtaining a state permit, undergoing a background check, and completing a gun safety course (HB4145).
The amendments are intended to temper the bill, including proposals to limit permit-less conceal carry to in-state residents, to retain the firearms safety training requirement, and to require persons who conceal carry to have casualty insurance.
“People here are extremely concerned about their NRA (National Rifle Association) rating,” said Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, who is sponsoring several of the amendments. “If legislators listen to their constituents and vote against the bill, that will lower their NRA rating.”
Skinner was referring to a poll of 1,000 state residents released Friday by Everytown for Gun Safety showing that 84 percent of likely voters and 87 percent of gun owners support the current requirements for obtaining a conceal carry permit.
— Representatives of the state Department of Education and the Arts criticized a recent report that said state spending on the arts is wasteful.
Among the spending targeted in the “Wild and Wasteful West Virginia” report is $2.9 million appropriated for fairs and festivals around the state, state funding for West Virginia Public Broadcasting, along with a variety of arts grants, funding for museums and historical sites, and the state Humanities Council.
However, Culture and History Commissioner Randall Reid-Smith told members of the Senate Finance Committee, “Fairs and festivals are one of the best investments you can put into your communities.”
Likewise, Public Broadcasting executive director Scott Finn noted, “Look around the United States. Look at the successful cities, the places where people want to live, the places that are growing. They all have strong arts components.”
Phil Kabler is a Statehouse reporter/columnist for The Charleston Gazette and a contributing columnist to the West Virginia Press Association. He can be followed on Twitter at @PhilKabler.