By Phil Kabler
The Charleston Gazette-Mail
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Going into the final week of the regular session, legislators are again finding that talking about cutting government spending is easier than actually doing it.https://wvpress.wpengine.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Joint-Development-Represents-Fairness-and-Opportunity-Independent-Oil-and-Gas-Association.pdf
Cases in point: The House of Delegates defeated (60-39) a bill that, among other things, would have eliminated a $5 million annual tax credit for film productions. (Beer industry lobbyists might argue another provision in the bill to raise beer taxes by $2.8 million a year did it in.)
In light of a $500 million budget hole, $5 million surely would seem expendable, particularly given testimony that the tax credit isn’t big enough to attract major Hollywood productions, and that in any given year, only about half the credits are claimed, with many sold back to in-state film production companies for pennies on the dollar.
Likewise, spending $15 million a year to prop up the greyhound racing industry seems about as sensible as investing in a hypothetical factory making rotary telephones.
Yes, arguably, each provides jobs, and each has a small but loyal fanbase. But the reality is, neither would survive without the subsidy.
Yet the Legislature has struggled mightily to pass legislation eliminating that greyhound funding, with opponents speaking passionately for those employed in the industry –- with numbers varying from about 600 to 1,700.
Also still pending is legislation to eliminate $5 million of state funding for the Courtesy Patrol, a program critics contend is obsolete in the cell-phone era, is operated by an organization that pays six-figure salaries to its management, and could be operated by the private sector subsidized by corporate sponsorships.
One lesson we can take away from the session is that even seemingly wasteful state spending has benefit to some constituents and some districts.
Suffice to say Thursday’s House of Delegates vote to discharge the medical marijuana bill from committee was a stunner.
Of the dozens of motions to discharge bills from committee I’ve witnessed, almost all have failed. In the handful of instances that succeeded, leadership has regrouped and secured enough votes to either recommit the bill to committee, or move it to the Rules Committee.
(One exception was in 2015, when then-Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler managed to get a motion passed indefinitely postponing a charter schools billed backed by the Senate leadership, leading the leadership itself to pass a discharge motion to bring the bill back to life.)
The fact the medical marijuana motion prevailed Thursday, and leadership did not attempt to quash the bill the next day, shows two things. One, that the bill has a groundswell of grassroots (pun intended) support, and two, it shows what tenuous control Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, has over House members.
Armstead would have a right to be furious over the developments, having a gentleman’s agreement with Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, that the House would not send over any social conservative issues (see item below), only to have the Senate dump a social progressive issue in his lap.
(Ironically, it wasn’t that long ago, 2014, when then-Minority Leader Armstead attempted to discharge a late-term abortion ban bill from committee, a motion that was defeated on a 48-48 tie.)
For opponents of the medical marijuana bill, the strategy now would appear to be loading it up with amendments on second reading, with the goal being to tie the bill up in a House-Senate conference committee until the clock runs out on the regular session on Saturday.
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Isn’t it a bit disingenuous for Senate leaders to criticize Gov. Jim Justice’s broad-based $350 million tax increase plan, which spreads out the burden among consumers, business, and the wealthy, as being an unreasonable hit on state taxpayers, when they’ve been advocating a tax “reform” measure that in its most recent, watered-down form, would increase sales taxes by $450 million a year, borne mostly by lower- and middle-class residents?
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For all the warts this session, the Legislature kept a lot of divisive, nonsensical stuff bottled up.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or the religious right to discriminate bill, didn’t resurface after being such a point of contention last year, and there was no legislation advanced to have state government police public restrooms.
Introduction of a bill to make the Bible the official state book of West Virginia made national headlines, but the bill never made it onto a committee agenda – which is why I detest bill introduction stories, particularly those that pick out the wildest, most absurd proposals (often to portray the state negatively) without any context on prospects for pursuing the bill.
Legislation to allow adults to ride motorcycles without helmets, generally presented as upholding an individual’s right to engage in stupid or self-destructive behavior, resurfaced this session, as it does periodically, but was defeated on a 15-19 vote as wiser heads prevailed in the Senate.
(The debate on which may have prompted the quote of the week, from Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson: “We cannot prevent people from making dumb decisions.” Which might also explain the composition of the Legislature.)
Meanwhile, as the Legislature proceeds with another session of repealing or relaxing myriad gun regulations – including what, based on testimony, must be the most-violated law in the state, having firearms secured in one’s vehicle while picking up kids at school – it bears repeating that the Legislature works in a building where not only are firearms are prohibited, but visitors must enter through security entrances where they must pass through a metal detector and their packages are X-rayed.
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Finally, among rookies this session, one has to credit Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan. His impassioned weekly floor speeches in support of the medical marijuana bill, of which he is lead sponsor, often citing its benefits to veterans with PTSD, undoubtedly helped shake it loose in the Senate.
Likewise, he may have swayed votes on the motorcycle helmet bill when he described in great detail his parachute jumps in the Army, including one incident when his visor came up, and the air pressure pulled the helmet off with it.
Ojeda said that while the proper way to make a parachute jump landing is feet, legs, buttocks and back, the reality is, the progression more often is feet, legs, buttocks and head – and he had all that time on that particular jump to contemplate the necessity to make a perfect landing, lacking a helmet.
Reach Phil Kabler at [email protected], 304 348-1220, or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.
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