Real-time legislating makes for unpredictable politics.
Governor Justice called lawmakers into special session Monday with the specific purpose of passing his proposed ten percent reduction in state income taxes. Justice crafted the agenda narrowly to try to prevent distractions.
However, the Legislature is a co-equal branch of government, and it gets a say in what does and does not happen. As the saying goes, a Governor proposes and the Legislature disposes.
When lawmakers arrived in Charleston Sunday and the majority Republicans caucused, it became evident that House Republicans wanted to also take on the abortion issue. Justice got the message that taking up abortion would improve the chances of his tax bill so he added abortion to the call.
Now the additional purpose of the special session is to “clarify and modernize the abortion-related laws currently existing as part of the West Virginia Code, to ensure a coherent, comprehensive framework governing abortions and attendant family services and support to expectant mothers to provide the citizens of this state more certainty in the application of such laws.”
That is going to be difficult because abortion is a complicated and emotional issue. Start with the legal, moral and ethical question of when life begins. At conception? At viability? Somewhere in between?
What exceptions, if any, should be in the law? The Indiana Legislature, where Republicans also hold supermajorities in both chambers, is currently having the same debate. Lawmakers there are considering a bill prohibiting abortion, except to “prevent a substantial permanent impairment of the life of the mother” or if the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.
What will West Virginia lawmakers do, if anything, about medical abortions? The FDA has approved drugs that can be used to end pregnancies within the first ten weeks. Will lawmakers try to prevent women from traveling to another state where abortion is legal to have the procedure?
Will the legislature pass a bill that outlaws abortions, but also discourages OB-GYNs from practicing in the state for fear of going to jail for up to ten years if they violate the law? (The House Health committee passed out a bill Monday that includes that penalty.)
Democrats are furious abortion has been added to the call. State Party Chair and Delegate Mike Pushkin (D, Kanawha) said, “It looks like Governor Justice is using abortion and reproductive health care as a bargaining chip just to pass his version of a tax cut. West Virginians deserve better than this.”
The political and policy differences will produce extended and emotional debates, likely prolonging the session beyond what was expected if only the tax issue were on the agenda. And the issues may become intertwined creating leverage to secure votes.
It would be a mistake to try to predict what is going to happen, on abortion or the tax issue. Remember, abortion wasn’t even on the Governor’s call until noon yesterday, the very time the special session was supposed to begin, and that caused extended delays in both chambers.
Governor Justice wants desperately to begin eliminating the state income tax, but he cannot do that without the Legislature. And, as is often the case, lawmakers have their own ideas about what they should be doing.