The 2019 regular session of the West Virginia Legislature came to an end at midnight Saturday, and just in time. It’s hard to recall when there was such acrimony among lawmakers under the Capitol dome.
Nerves fray when 134 people are together for 60 days, arguing over often controversial issues. Clashes of personalities and policy are inevitable. However, this session was particularly caustic. There were several reasons for this:
First, there were two highly contentious issues—the education reform bill and the campus carry bill.
The session began on a sour note, with Democrats and the teacher unions accusing Senate Republicans of trying to ram through a sweeping education bill. The bill triggered a two-day teachers’ strike and the Capitol was again filled with angry educators and service workers.
The bill that would have allowed individuals with a concealed carry permit to carry a gun on college and university campuses also prompted a series of heated debates.
Then there was the kerfuffle over the anti-Muslim display that led to several angry exchanges among lawmakers and the subsequent debate over whether Delegate Mike Caputo (D-Marion) should be disciplined for forcing open the House Chamber door that struck a doorkeeper.
Earlier in the session, freshman House member Eric Porterfield (R-Mercer) set an unhealthy tone for debate when he compared the LGBTQ movement to the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis.
Throughout the two months, and particularly in the closing days, you could hear staff members, lawmakers, lobbyists and Capitol observers all lamenting the tenor of the session. Long-timers wistfully recalled when lawmakers and factions strained to keep their disputes from becoming too personal because they felt compelled to be deferential to legislative process and the decorum of the body.
It is apparent that the state’s political dialog has changed. The just-ended session seemed more like the politics of Washington than West Virginia, as a growing number of individual lawmakers put their personal agendas on display.
Perhaps those individuals would argue they were sent to Charleston for that purpose, that their election was the mandate they needed to bloviate about their views endlessly and forego comity for chaos. The altruistic greater good is secondary to the piety of a lost or fringe cause.
If that is the case—and I expect it is—then the just-completed session is not an outlier; this is the new normal. Consensus building is still possible, but it will be more difficult as an increasing number of politicians carve out very public positions on issues from which they are unlikely or unwilling to retreat.