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Week One at The Legislature

Last week was the first week of the 2020 legislative session. Really, it was just three days, but I’m counting Monday and Tuesday since January legislative interim meetings started then.

While it remains to be seen how the next 55 days of the 60-day session will go, last week was a bit slow-going. I’ve already been told that I jinxed the session this year by saying in my column last week that I expected a quiet session. We’ll see.

Some lawmakers told me last week that they sense something just beneath the surface of the session. They can’t exactly pinpoint what that feeling is, but they believe something is bound to happen to upset the quiet.

Speaking of quiet, Gov. Jim Justice gave his fourth (and maybe final?) State of the State address. There were a few specific proposals in his speech, but it was mostly short on substance. It could have easily been wrapped up in an hour, maybe even 45 minutes. It somehow lasted close to 1 1/2 hours. Most of that was giving the state a good pep talk, which makes sense given Justice’s love of coaching.

Some Democratic lawmakers took issue with Justice’s rosy outlook. Justice talked the state’s good 2019 statistics: $3 billion in personal income growth, $511 million in tax surpluses, pay raises for teachers for two years straight (which teachers had to strike over the first time when the original amount proposed was unsatisfactory), stable state employee health insurance (for now), well over $100 million for secondary road maintenance, the Roads to Prosperity program, low unemployment, and on and on.

Democratic leaders point out that despite the positive speech that West Virginia still ranks 50th in many categories. They’re not wrong. As I like to say, we’re still 50th, we’re just less 50th than what we were a year ago. U.S. News and World Report has us ranked 50th for business environment and employment, and we’re ranked 47th for growth. We ranked 50th in a USA Today list of states due to our 4th smallest increase in the annual growth rate, and 4rd largest decrease in employment growth.

The theme from Democratic lawmakers this year is the need for frank, factual discussions about where West Virginia stands nationally and how to improve the state. They’re absolutely right, though I find it amusing that when Republicans brought up West Virginia’s bad education statistics as motivation for passing the education omnibus bills last year, Democrats didn’t want to have those conversations then.

Can’t have it both ways.

As I wrote about last week, expect social issues to cause much of the drama this session. Case in point: The Fairness Act.

The effort, once again, to add four words to the state’s housing and employment non-discrimination statutes – sexual orientation and gender identity – looks like it will once again be put on the backburner.

As I wrote about Saturday, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, has been in a slow retreat since sitting on a panel back in December when the Fairness Act was rolled out. Carmichael would probably characterize it differently. As the U.S. Marines said during the battle at the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War, “We’re not retreating, we’re just advancing in a different direction.”

There seems to be so concern about the language for the Fairness Act. Advocates seem to be pushing the messaging that it’s as simple as adding four words to code: sexual orientation and gender identity. In reality, it’s never that simple to amend state code, but in essence the advocates are right.

I just looked up the language for Senate Bill 270, which is the Senate version of the Fairness Act. I don’t see any sneaky language about creating thought crimes or requirements for churches to hire certain people. It’s literally just saying you can’t base hiring decisions and terminations, or denial of housing, based on legal activities in their personal lives.

The real fear that Republicans have is simply this: West Virginia, culturally, is a socially conservative state. They fear an electoral backlash both in the primary and general election from voters. Also, 20 states might have these laws, but that means 30 don’t, including all of our surrounding states.

With young people leaving the state at massive rate and the population skewing older, Republican lawmakers can wait this issue out, but don’t expect Democrats to go down without a fight.

On this week’s State of the State podcast, I sat down with Gov. Jim Justice to go into more detail on his legislative agenda, his flat budget, the overall state of the economy, how to improve the state’s ability to recruit new businesses, and even the federal investigation into the former Greenbrier Classic.

You can subscribe to State of the State on iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, iHeartRadio, and wherever you listen to podcasts. Be sure to rate, review, and tell a friend. It’s just another way of providing you with statehouse coverage.

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