More than 80 delegates have signed a letter asking Gov. Jim Justice to open the state Capitol to the public, citing the constitutional rights of citizens to peaceably assemble and to address their grievances to their government.
“We, the undersigned, believe it is past time that this constitutional right of all West Virginians be fully restored to allow their voices to be heard in the state Capitol,” wrote the 81 members of the House of Delegates.
The 60-day legislative session is almost half concluded.
The Capitol has largely been closed to the public as lawmakers have debated significant changes to the public education system, healthcare, drinking water supplies and more. Delegates just received a bill from Governor Justice that would cut the state’s personal income tax by 60 percent while raising a number of other taxes.
“It is more important than ever to ensure the voices of West Virginians are heard as we work together to rebuild our families, small businesses and our state,” the delegates wrote.
Members of the public, including lobbyists, may gain entry to the Capitol by appointment only. Once there, people go through a temperature scanner, a metal detector, a short questionnaire meant to reveal any symptoms of covid-19 and a registry for who they’re meeting.
There is limited seating at committee meetings. Senate floor sessions and committee meetings are livestreamed and archived. House floor sessions are video streamed, but the committee meetings are audio only so it can be confusing about who is talking or the status of a meeting that has gone quiet.
Just days before the session began in February, Governor Justice clarified that the Capitol would remain closed. “Capitol access will be limited to just those that are here for official business or other government services,” the governor said in a briefing.
But the situation has changed since then, said Delegate Evan Worrell, R-Cabell, who rounded up the 81 signatures over two and a half days.
More and more people — including lawmakers and staff — have been vaccinated. Covid numbers, including hospitalizations, have been trending downward. The governor successfully pushed for schools to be open five days a week. And the governor has said restaurants and bars may operate at full capacity.
“To keep the public out of the process any further, I don’t think is right,” Worrell said.
He hopes the governor might publicly comment on the request during a regular, virtual briefing about the state’s pandemic response, scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday.
“This isn’t a publicity stunt by any means whatsoever. I’ve had constituents who have tried to come here to see me and have not been allowed in the Capitol.”
He added, “I believe people should be able to walk into this building and address us, especially during the legislative session. People have a right to be here to hear what we’re doing.”
State Senator Mike Caputo, D-Marion, spoke earlier this week about the mixed message of fully opening restaurants while keeping the Capitol largely closed.
“So let’s think about that for just a second,” he said. “Social gatherings now up to 100. Bars and restaurants are at 100 percent capacity. Gyms, museums, and retail stores are now at 100 percent capacity and all through this pandemic we counted on our first responders and other essential workers to continue to provide the services for our great state.
“But you know what’s not open yet? The people’s house is not open yet.”
The senator said business at the Capitol should still follow CDC guidelines. But he said the seat he represents belongs to the people of his district.
“This chamber belongs to the people of West Virginia,” Caputo said, “and they should not be locked out of their house.”