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Week Six at The Legislature

Starting today there are three weeks left in the 2020 legislative session. After last week, this session can’t end soon enough for me.

Last Tuesday was the last day for bills to be introduced in the House of Delegates. Today is the last day for new bills to be introduced in the Senate. We’re 10 days out from Crossover Day, when bills need to pass the body from where they originated. As I stated at the beginning of session, I predicted things would be quiet, and they mostly have on the legislative front. But putting a bunch of people in several box-shaped rooms for 60 days is enough to make any sane person start howling at the moon. Last week, it all hit the fan.

Last Monday, the House Banking and Insurance Committee had a bill before it that would have limited spouses of state employees on the Public Employees Insurance Agency from being able to be on their spouse’s state health insurance. I won’t go into the particulars of the bill, but it failed in an 11-11 tie in committee. Delegate Eric Porterfield, R-Mercer, was not present for the vote.

There are many accounts of what happened after, including a story by me. The most detailed account was in the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. Allegedly, Porterfield was walking by a group of delegates in the parking lot, including the lead sponsor of the bill, Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh. According to the paper, Steele called Porterfield a coward, Porterfield told him to say it to his face and the two proceeded to argue.

No violence appears to have been involved. It was heated argument between two Republican lawmakers. Unprofessional? Certainly, but I can tell you this happens a lot behind the scenes, particularly over legislation. But most of the time the two arguing parties go back to their lodgings, go to sleep and they start the next day fresh.

Porterfield didn’t. The next day, Tuesday, he accused Steele of being drunk, alerted House leadership and the Capitol Police and said if Steele wasn’t punished, he was going to create some long days in the House. On Wednesday he did just that, requiring every bill, but one, on third reading to be read aloud in their entirety. As you can imagine, many of those bills are pages long and deal with multiple lines of state code. As a result, House members were on the floor that day for four hours.

On Thursday, Porterfield took a day of rest and didn’t pull the same stunt, though the House went for four hours anyway. I don’t know if Porterfield’s playground tantrum was rubbing off on other members of the House, but there were several times delegates were just downright petty toward each other.

Even the press got a little grief in a floor speech for focusing on the week’s drama instead of legislation, such as the passage of the foster care bill of rights. A bill that was so important to House leadership that it sat in the House Finance Committee for 22 days (after being quickly adopted by two previous House committees), was placed on the Finance Committee’s agenda Wednesday with 90 minutes notice and reported to the floor in five minutes.

That same floor speech pivoted away from blaming the media to placing the blame on the two incidents that caused the media to be distracted from covering the good works of the Legislature: the Porterfield tantrum and Greenbrier East High School girls basketball coach (and governor of West Virginia) Jim Justice calling the visiting Woodrow Wilson High School girls basketball team and coaches “thugs” after a physical game that results in Woodrow coming off the bench and an assistant coach charged with allegedly manhandling a police officer.

Much like Porterfield (a pastor, if you can believe that) should not have let the sun go down on his wrath and should have forgiven Steele the next day, Justice should have taken several breaths and remembered who he was before calling high school students any type of name. Had he waited and thought about his words, this would have all worked out. Five Woodrow players have been suspended for their actions. The assistant coach has been charged for his behavior.

Instead, we have Porterfield sucking out all the oxygen from the room and Justice making national headlines for using a term that now has a racial component to it. None of this is the media’s fault. I would have never written about the Porterfield-Steele drama until it disrupted the House floor sessions. I probably would never have written about Justice’s use of “thug” until he put out a statement on it and lawmakers started addressing it.

I can only blame Justice for his remarks and not thinking clearly. I can only hold House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, responsible for the infighting in the Republican caucus. I just can’t imagine former speaker Tim Armstead allowing this behind-the-scenes fighting to spill into a House floor session. I can’t imagine he would allow the various displays of disrespect I saw this week to go unaddressed.

If you want to reverse the trend of people leaving the state or make West Virginia more enticing to businesses or Virginia counties, repealing a tax or creating a new court or starting a state-sponsored investment fund won’t do it.

Presenting a better image of our state to the public, acting like adults (particularly regarding children), being less hateful, being more loving and forgiving those with whom we disagree. You know, that might help for a start.

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