CHARLESTON, W.Va. — When the Committee of the Whole convenes, Senator Craig Blair will be at the helm.
Blair will serve as the chairman of the Senate as it functions as one committee, discussing a broad-ranging education bill that has also been a lightning rod.
“Look, I run both a tight ship and a loose ship,” said Blair, R-Berkeley. “It’s hard to explain, but I keep members focused in on the topics and I also allow the conversation to go where you learn what’s in there so you can make a good decision.”
Blair landed in this spotlight because of his usual role as Senate Finance chairman. Earlier this week, the Senate majority voted to bypass that committee and instead let the whole membership consider the education bill.
Two Republican members of the Finance Committee — senators Kenny Mann and Bill Hamilton — said they’re opposed to the omnibus education bill, putting its passage there in doubt.
But Republicans contended the Committee of the Whole isn’t a way to circumvent the usual system. Instead, they said, it’s a way to allow all senators to hear about the important bill at the same time, whether they’re on that committee or not.
“I am a proponent of the Finance Committee on steroids, and that’s what the Committee of the Whole is,” Blair said. “This is a big issue. We recognize that. We’re including all members.”
The Committee of the Whole is anticipated to meet at 11 a.m. Wednesday with all other committees shutting down.
Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso isn’t sold on the approach.
“We’re closing down the process in the Legislature by having everybody on the floor. The committee systems won’t be working,” said Prezioso, D-Marion. “We’re going to have a spectacle down there.”
This situation is a rarity. In 1917, Gov. John Cornwell wanted to address the Senate about a resolution. In 1961, the Senate resolved into a Committee of the Whole to hear technical explanations about a bill.
This time, Blair is aware all eyes will be on him, both in the gallery and from the video streaming that’s available from the Senate chamber. Blair, who is not a very formal guy, hopes to be able to step out from the lectern, to move around and help with presentations.
“I’ve got to ask permission for some things. I don’t know whether I’m allowed to put a mic on, and when we’re doing presentations where I can walk around,” he said. “I’m not thrilled about being up at the Senate president’s podium. That’s for the Senate president.”
He says he has PowerPoint presentations to explain the bill. And, he says, he is providing color coded fiscal notes.
“This chairman is going to do what is efficient and conducive to the members of the committee,” Blair said.
The bill currently under considerations combines promised pay raises for school employees along with provisions for charter schools.
It also does much more.
The bill would also let teachers bank personal days for retirement credit. It would give counties greater latitude in paying some teachers more for in-demand expertise. It also gives county boards greater leeway in raising property tax levies.
The bill would require teachers to sign off annually on union dues. It would allow for Educational Savings Accounts. It stipulates that if there’s a work stoppage that closes schools, those involved would not be paid.
It’s all tied together with a non-severability clause, saying that if any part of the bill is struck down then it would all be void.
Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said a provision that would have raised maximum class sizes from 25 to 28 — or even 31 — was going to be removed from the bill prior to the latest version’s introduction.
Blair does not believe the Committee of the Whole will work anything less than a full day.
“I have every intention of running this into the evening. We’ll put a full 8-hour work day in the committee if that’s how long it runs,” he said.