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Fast-Paced, Testy Second Week In W.Va. Legislature

As the headline states, it is week two here under the gold dome, but it feels like it’s the final two weeks based on how long floor sessions are going, as well as the tone.

Already this week the House of Delegates passed two education reform bills, legislation dealing with states of emergency and federal disaster funding appropriation authority, and occupational licensing reform — all pretty big reforms.

Most of my time has been spent on the House side. Not to say that the state Senate isn’t doing important things, but it appears the House is doing the heavy lifting, especially on education reform. Considering both education savings accounts and expansive charter school bills have died in the House before, it makes sense to let the House work those bills first before heading to the state Senate where education reform has a friendlier audience.


One thing I was taken aback by this week was an effort to limit the minority party in the House from having remarks from their members printed in the appendix of the House Journal, a historical record of what goes on daily during the legislative session.

Last Tuesday, House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, made a motion to have the remarks made by several House Democrats during the debate on the charter school expansion bill printed in the appendix.

It’s a fairly standard motion and a courtesy for members. Anyone can make the motion and sometimes one delegate from one party does it for a delegate in the opposite party if the remarks were particularly moving. But Del. Diana Graves, R-Kanawha, objected to Fluharty’s motion. In order to override the objection, a vote was held and Democratic lawmakers could not prevail.

Typically, you see someone object to printing remarks in the appendix of the journal toward the end of a legislative session when people are stressed and emotions are running high, but even then usually people back down because it has always been a courtesy. But Graves last year raised concerns about the House Clerk staff being drowned in remarks to include in the journal.

In a tweet to me, Graves said that was why she objected this time too. But Wednesday, she backed down and asked to have the remarks from the previous day’s debate included in the appendix of the journal … this time.

“We consider that we have given fair warning that we will object to mass additions to the journal going forward,” Graves said. “But in a gesture of goodwill for the minority party we are allowing this one mass addition after receiving their agreement to stop asking for them.”

I certainly take her at her word, and one can appreciate her taking up for the hardworking staff of the House Clerk’s Office. As a former staffer of the Senate Clerk’s Office from 2013 to 2017, I know exactly how hard these people work during the 60-day session.

With that said, I record the audio of most House floor sessions and upload the audio file to a transcription service and get a mostly accurate transcript back within five minutes. It’s an online program and it allows me to turn around stories quickly. There are even better programs out there, some that involve people who do the transcription for you. If I can do it, I know the House Clerk’s Office can do it.

Another reason why Graves’ hardline on remarks is bad is the limits on public access to the Legislature this year due to COVID-19. An executive order from Gov. Jim Justice prohibits the public from entering the State Capitol Building. Appointments are required to enter, meaning you either need an appointment with a lawmaker or you need to be on a witness list to give testimony to a committee.

Except for floor sessions, only audio streaming is available for listening to committees with no archiving. Even committees held in the larger House Chamber where video can easily be done are only broadcast by audio. Public hearings on bills are limited and in at least one instance a request for one was denied (House public hearings are largely performative anyway, but at least that provides the appearance of transparency).

It’s true that the average person has probably never read the House Journal, as a friend and former legislative staffer pointed out on Twitter. You can read a collection of older House Journals on the Legislature’s website. But having remarks made during a debate on a bill is a public record.

It’s also a historical record. For example, some of the remarks made during the debate on House Bill 2012 included the first floor remarks by freshmen lawmakers. That might have been the only time those lawmakers spoke all session. Thanks to Graves changing her mind, those remarks are now preserved for posterity’s sake.

I understand Graves’ motives, but this was always going to look bad and heavy-handed. With a supermajority, Republicans can push through anything they want. Members need to pay mind to not act as bullies as they do so.

I covered the Republicans when they were the minority party a decade ago. I can tell you had the Democratic majority at the time tried something similar, you would have heard howling for days.


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