By ERIN BECK
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Amid an ongoing budget crisis, the first cut that the state House of Delegates debated on the floor this legislative session was the termination of the West Virginia Women’s Commission.
Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, noted that it was the first cut they had debated on the House floor Wednesday, as House Bill 2646 moved from second to third reading.
After several delegates recognized representatives of domestic violence agencies who are in town for the legislative session, delegates defeated an amendment, introduced by Delegate Rodney Pyles, D-Monongalia, that would have allowed the governor to determine if the state no longer could afford to fund the Women’s Commission.
Stacy North, chairwoman of the commission, has said the agency’s budget is about $156,000.
The commission, an office of the Department of Health and Human Resources, consists of eighteen members, including seven ex officio members from state agencies, and one part-time employee. According to state code, it is responsible for reviewing and studying the status of women in West Virginia and recommending methods of overcoming discrimination against women in public and private employment and in the exercise of their civil and political rights.
Delegate Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette, one of the bill’s sponsors, spoke in opposition to Pyles’ amendment, saying she wants to save money and that the commission is “unnecessary.”
Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, spoke in favor of the amendment, noting that West Virginia has one of the largest pay gaps in the country, the worst health outcomes for women and the lowest college-going rates for women.
Pyles’ amendment was defeated on a mostly party-line vote, 63-37, and the bill advanced to third reading. Only one Republican, Delegate Danny Wagner, R-Barbour, voted for the amendment.
The commission is budgeted for 1.5 employees, but currently only employs one half-time person, who also is the executive director of the James “Tiger” Morton Catastrophic Illness Commission.
North noted there has been a state agency hiring freeze in place. She also noted that, during the House Government Organization meeting on Friday, some members who were considering the bill seemed to think the organization provides duplicate services.
She said the organization doesn’t provide direct services. Instead, she said, it conducts research, presents information to lawmakers and provides policy suggestions. She said that, in recent years, it has worked on efforts to protect breastfeeding in public, make strangulation a felony and improve the training of nurses who examine sexual assault victims.
She said she isn’t sure what services they think might be being duplicated.
Delegate Lynne Arvon, R-Raleigh, is one of eight Republican women sponsoring the bill. Asked what services the commission duplicated, Arvon said it mainly serves as a “referral source for women.” Asked about the commission’s legislative agenda, she said she had never been approached about legislation. She also said she supports the bill because of the ongoing budgetary crisis.
“Every small amount adds up to a large amount,” she said.
She said she wasn’t involved in the discussions about the bill being sponsored by solely women, and didn’t recall who asked her to sponsor it.
“I wasn’t the one that made that decision,” she said. “I don’t make those decisions.”
Delegate Nancy Foster, R-Putnam, a bill sponsor whom North said attended a candidate training session the Women’s Commission hosted, did not return a phone call.
The legislative auditor wrote in a 2006 report that the Women’s Commission needed much more funding, including a higher salary for the executive director, to be effective. It was designated about $130,000 in general revenue at the time.
A 1999 performance review found that, since other state programs to improve women’s lives had been created, the commission should be terminated or given three years to show it was not duplicating functions. In a 2001 performance review, the auditor found the women’s commission was “focusing on issues that did not significantly duplicate efforts of other state programs.”
The commission’s functions include “advocacy, research, education, collaboration, partnerships, and recognition,” according to its mission statement.
Its most recent legislative recommendations included appointing a legislative committee to study elder care, adopting a resolution in support of gender equity on boards and commissions, allowing nontraditional students who have been out of school for more than two years to be eligible for the Promise scholarship and the passage of HB 4489, a bill addressing human trafficking, according to a 2016 report.
The Legislature created the Women’s Commission in 1977. Its budget was about $40,000, shortly after its inception.
Bonnie Brown, a former Democratic delegate for Kanawha County, lobbied for the establishment of the Women’s Commission and became co-chair of its legislative committee. She said underfunding has been a constant problem.
“We used to call it a program to fail,” she said, “but it was an appeasement for the women, originally.”
She remembers that, when she was co-chair of the legislative committee, other members were afraid to come out for legislation too strongly. They were afraid their funding might get taken away.
She saw potential in the organization though, and it did become actively supportive of issues like equal pay and ending domestic violence, she said.
More women became involved with the Women’s Commission after an effort to defund it in 1995.
“The women realized they had something there — an advocate for them,” Brown said.
Belinda Biafore, the state Democratic Party chairwoman, who has served on the commission, sent a statement last week calling the bill “truly shameful.”
Jordan Burgess, executive director of the West Virginia Republican Party, liked and retweeted a tweet about the bill’s progress but did not respond to an interview request immediately sent in response.
The 2017 Legislature includes 18 women — the lowest number since 1984. Fifteen women are in the House of Delegates, including two Democrats and 13 Republicans.
The bill will be up for third and final reading today, the second day of Women’s History Month.
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