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At the Capitol: Redistricting bill looks toward 2022?

By Phil Kabler

For The West Virginia Press Association

While the calendar may read 2018, the Legislature’s mind is on 2022, based on legislation fast-tracked in the House of Delegates.

When redistricting rolls around in 2021, following the 2020 U.S. Census, the legislation would require the House to be made up of 100 single-member districts, breaking up 20 multi-member districts (HB 4002). The first elections under the redrawn districts would come in 2022.

Sponsored by 10 Republican delegates, including House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, and Majority Leader Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, the proposal has generated some partisan bickering.

In Judiciary Committee, Delegate Andrew Robinson, D-Kanawha, objected to legislative findings in the bill contending that multi-member districts disenfranchise large groups of voters, specifically citing eastern Kanawha County and Mason County.

Robinson, who lives in Charleston but whose district includes eastern Kanawha County, objected to the claim that voters in his district lack representation, calling it opinion, not fact.

Likewise, the committee rejected, on a party-line vote, an amendment proposed by Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, to appoint an independent commission to redraw the delegate districts, a process currently controlled by the Legislature.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Delegate Riley Moore, R-Jefferson, said of keeping the current redistricting process.

A day later, Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, placed a separate bill to set up an independent redistricting commission (HB 2383) into a subcommittee for study, saying the bill lacks specifics on membership for the commission or how it would be funded.

However, Democrats raised concerns that putting bills in subcommittee is a common tactic to kill legislation. Democrats, including Robinson, also criticized House leadership for taking up the political issue of redistricting early in the session, ahead of critical issues facing the state, including measures to fight the state’s opioid abuse epidemic.

In theory, single member districts could benefit Republicans, since voters in rural areas tend to be more likely to vote Republican.

Currently, Republicans hold 35 of the House’s 47-single member districts, while Republicans have majorities in just five of the 20 multi-member districts.

Also during the first full week of the 60-day legislative session:

| Senate Finance Committee members questioned Supreme Court Chief Justice Allen Loughry during the court’s annual budget presentation to the committee, but raised no questions about lavish spending by the court as part of a $3.7 million remodeling of court offices and meeting spaces, including the purchase of a couch costing $32,000 for Loughry’s office.

They also did not address the issue of Loughry having court furnishings, including an antique wood “Cass Gilbert” desk and a leather couch, in his Charleston home, furnishings he had court employees remove from his house in December.

In an opening statement to the committee, Loughry called the lavish purchases “indefensible” and “outrageous,” but also said they were isolated, and that procurement safeguards had been put in place to assure they couldn’t happen again.

“We had a problem and we addressed it,” he said. “We will continue to work hard and we will regain the trust of West Virginians.”

Afterward, Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said the committee wanted to discuss details about the judicial branch’s $139 million budget, not to rehash issues with court spending.

However, when Loughry began to raise objections to a possible constitutional amendment to give the Legislature control of the Supreme Court’s budget, Blair cut him off.

“This is a budget hearing. We are not addressing that bill right now,” Blair interrupted Loughry. “I think you’re out of line.”

Blair later said he believes there is a strong support among legislators for passage of a resolution to put the proposed constitutional amendment on the November general election ballot.

| House Finance Committee members grilled PEIA executive director Ted Cheatham over a new wellness program the state health insurance agency is launching that will reward public employees for completing health assessments and participating in healthy lifestyle and wellness programs – but will impose penalties on those who don’t comply. Those penalties include higher premiums and a $500 a year increase in deductibles.

Delegate Marty Gearhart, R-Mercer, told Cheatham he’s heard multiple complaints from teachers and public employees who consider the GO365 program unfair and intrusive.

“You have a lot of state employees who are really hot and bothered,” Gearhart said. “They consider it an invasion of privacy.”

Cheatham said the program is designed to encourage employees who have unhealthy lifestyles or untreated chronic diseases such as high blood pressure or diabetes to take responsibility for their health.

Otherwise, he said, PEIA will end up paying for costly medical care for those insurees.

“There’s a lot of people out there who are not healthy people, and they aren’t going to the doctor,” he said, adding, “We’re saying, if you don’t want to play, you don’t have to, it’s just going to cost you more money.”

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