BY ERIN BECK
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The House of Delegates passed, in a mostly party-line vote, its first budget cut of the legislative session Thursday by approving a bill terminating the West Virginia Womens’ Commission.
The Women’s Commission was created in 1977 “for the broad purpose of improving the status and opportunities of women in the State” and was later established as a division of the state Department of Health and Human Resources. Its budget in 2017 was about $156,000.
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.
The bill passed 58-41. Republican Delegates Moore Capito, R-Kanawha; Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur; William R. Romine, R-Tyler; and Danny Wagner, R-Barbour, crossed party lines to vote against the bill.
“My wife is a woman,” Hamilton stated, to laughter.
During floor debate, Delegate Lynne Arvon, a bill sponsor, argued that the commission offers duplicated services.
Arvon, R-Raleigh, listed, during a floor speech, some state agencies or programs that she felt have similar functions as the Women’s Commission, such as the Department of Education, DHHR and the Human Rights Commission — which the Legislature is also considering disbanding.
She listed several organizations that have distinctly different functions from the Women’s Commission — such as the Women’s Health Center, a health care provider in Charleston.
Arvon, who supports restricting access to abortion, also listed West Virginia Free, a nonprofit that advocates for abortion rights and other reproductive health issues, and Our Children, Our Future, an anti-poverty campaign that champions progressive causes.
“We will not let women’s issues fall through the cracks,” she said.
Supporters of the bill who have made the argument that the Women’s Commission offers duplicated services have also cited a report from the legislative auditor’s office in 1999, which found that the Women’s Commission had “significant overlap” with other programs.
But the auditor was talking about overlap with other taxpayer-funded state and federal programs, not private businesses and nonprofits.
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. In 2006, the auditor’s office found duplication with other state programs “to some extent.”
Delegate Kayla Kessinger, the lead sponsor, argued that the Women’s Commission is “insulting,” and said she “didn’t need a Women’s Commission to hold my hand and pat me on the head.”
“We could put a fentanyl trafficker in jail for five years for what we pay the Women’s Commission for a year,” she said.
Kessinger, R-Fayette, also said the Women’s Commission is ineffective and unnecessary, and said that was the view of the auditor’s office. She said she hadn’t heard of it before she entered public office.
The legislative auditor’s office did find, in 2006, that the office was ineffective and recommended that it be terminated. But not because it was unnecessary.
“The Legislative Auditor finds that the current funding for the Commission is inadequate for it to be effective,” the audit states.
The bill had no men listed as sponsors. When asked why that was Kessinger said late Thursday that “had any male member went through the procedure of adding their name to my bill, I would have been more than happy to consent. They did not.
“As a Delegate, I hold the right of choosing the names I want associated with my bills — this one and every other one,” she said. “I knew these seven women agreed on this issue. That is why I asked them.”
In response to the same question, Arvon said Wednesday that she wasn’t involved in those discussions.
Several Democrats argued against the bill, noting that eliminating the commission’s relatively paltry budget won’t do much to close a projected half-billion-dollar state budget shortfall.
“You would need to repeat that cut 2,999 times to get to the $450 million shortfall,” said Delegate John Williams, D-Monongalia.
“Pay attention, ladies and gentleman,” said Delegate Justin Marcum, D-Mingo. “This bill never went to Finance.”
Delegate Linda Longstreth, D-Marion, disputed Arvon’s position that “women’s issues” would not fall through the cracks, saying that she has seen that occur during her time in the Legislature.
“I think the women here should agree, especially the ones who have used the Women’s Commission and run for political positions,” she said, referring to Delegate Nancy Foster, R-Putnam, who attended a Women’s Commission candidate training workshop.
Foster stated, under questioning from Kessinger, that she won because of hard work and because her “message resonated.”
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.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, has said the Senate would consider the bill if the House of Delegates passes it. Three women are in the 34-member state Senate.
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