By Phil Kabler
For West Virginia Press
With the 2020 legislative session fast approaching cross-over day – the last day for the House and Senate to act on bills originating in each house – legislators found their work overshadowed by distractions at the Capitol and beyond.
Much of the focus of the week was on the girl’s basketball game between Woodrow Wilson and Greenbrier East high schools Tuesday evening when, following an off-court incident involving a fan and a Woodrow coach, Greenbrier East coach and state Gov. Jim Justice referred to opposing players as thugs.
As reported by Beckley Register-Herald sportswriter Tyler Jackson, who posted a recording of the post-game interview on Twitter, Justice said: “I hate to say it any other way, but the honest to God’s truth is the same thing happened down at Woodrow two different times out of the Woodrow players. They’re a bunch of thugs. The whole team left the bench, the coach is in a fight, they walked off the floor, they called the game … They don’t know how to behave, and at the end of the day, you got what you got.”
Outrage over the comments spread quickly, prompting the governor’s office to issue a statement from Justice saying he was unaware the word thug has racial connotations or that he intended to use it in that way.
“My definition of a thug is clear – it means violence, bullying, and disorderly conduct. And we, as West Virginians, should have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior. Anyone that would accuse me of making a racial slur is totally absurd,” Justice said in the statement.
He added, “I’m extremely proud that my coaches, my team, and myself were not involved in this incident in any way, shape, form, or fashion and I’m truly saddened that the Woodrow kids had to be subjected to this behavior.”
Justice stopped short of apologizing, prompting legislators to call on him to do so.
“We need the governor to show true leadership,” House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said in a floor speech. “It’s time you stand up and apologize for offending others.”
Justice finally offered an apology in an interview Friday, although it remains to be seen if that will be the last word on the incident.
Meanwhile, the legislative process in the House of Delegates ground to a crawl Wednesday, with Delegate Eric Porterfield, R-Mercer, demanding that all third reading bills on the House calendar be read in their entirety.
Porterfield, who last session made national headlines for using a homosexual slur in a committee meeting and subsequently intimated that he would drown his children if he learned they were gay, said he was upset the House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, had failed to discipline Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, for a confrontation with Porterfield the prior evening.
Porterfield said Steele had confronted him in a Capitol parking area, berating him for missing a committee vote that resulted in a bill Steele had sponsored failing on an 11-11 tie.
On the House floor, Porterfield said that legislators should not be “intimidated and bullied” over their positions on legislation.
Meanwhile, Delegate Jeffery Pack, R-Raleigh, complained that a “kafuffle” was detracting attention away from good work by the Legislature, including the House Finance Committee advancing a major foster care reform bill to the full House.
Among other changes, the bill (HB 4092) would increase payments to families providing foster care by about $300 a month, as part of an effort to increase foster care placements.
“I do not want the actions of a few to define us in this House,” Pack told colleagues.
Also at the Capitol:
— The latest attempt to create a state intermediate appeals court passed the Senate on an 18-14 vote, with two Republicans voting with Senate Democrats to oppose the bill, and with two Democrats absent (SB 275).
It marks the third straight year that the legislation has passed the Senate. The two previous versions of the bill both died in the House Judiciary Committee.
“It’s past time for this Legislature to exercise the authority conferred upon it in Article 8 of the (state) Constitution to create an intermediate court of appeals,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Charlie Trump, R-Morgan. “The state needs one, and we’ve needed one for a long time.”
Opponents of the measure argued that a new court would be expensive and unnecessary, particularly at a time when the state Supreme Court’s caseload has been declining.
— Another attempt to eliminate some $17 million a year of racing fund subsidies paid to greyhound owners and breeders, freeing up that money for the general revenue budget, advanced from the Senate Finance Committee on a 10-6 vote, despite strong opposition from Northern Panhandle senators, concerned that the loss of greyhound racing could harm the Wheeling Island Casino and Racetrack (SB 285).
A similar bill passed the Legislature in 2017, but was vetoed by Justice, who called it a “job killer.”