At least 60 members of the House of Delegates have signed requests for a special session meant to provide oversight of the state’s coronavirus response, particularly the governor’s use of $1.25 billion in federal relief.
Gov. Jim Justice made it clear today that he does not want that.
“From the standpoint of a political move, it is nothing but political. I have tried with all in me, and I have given you the very best I know to give in every way. I have tried with all in me to keep things from being political, to keep things transparent,” Justice said today.
But the letters have come from members of both parties in the 100-member House of Delegates.
Democrats have gathered at least 35 signatures and Republicans, who have the majority, have gathered at least 26 plus one from independent Delegate Marshall Wilson, a former Republican. That puts the number over the three-fifths of delegates required.
But there’s another hangup. The Senate would also need a supermajority of members requesting a special session, and it’s not clear there’s as much movement there.
Justice said he would not call in the Legislature, even though issuing the call himself would give him greater control over the agenda. The governor said there is no public outcry and described his office as an open door for representatives who want to discuss the pandemic response or spending priorities.
“I’ve not heard of any one of our citizens out on the streets that are concerned or wanting us to call ourselves back into session,” Justice said.
Anything else is a political play, the governor said.
“You know and I know this is absolute, rock solid, nothing but politics. Nothing but political. Proof’s in the pudding,” said Justice, a Republican.
“From the Dems’ side, almost 100 percent of the Dems are going to vote with this. From the Republican side, you’ve got some…. unusual players that are pushing this.”
That, in turn, drew pushback from delegates like Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison.
Good grief; for the Governor to act as if he’s out there ‘on the streets’ to even hear any of his constituents (much less listen to them) is laughable. Everybody knows where he stays – INSIDE at his home in Lewisburg.
— Tim Miley (@TimMileyWV) July 15, 2020
Most of the letters from Republicans have similar language and are signed individually by delegates.
“I look forward to working with you to address the challenges being faced by our state as a result of the covid-19 epidemic,” they say.
The GOP letters provided to MetroNews do not include the signatures of House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, Majority Leader Amy Summers, President Pro Tem Daryl Cowles, Majority Whip Paul Espinosa or Finance Chairman Eric Householder.
But there are a couple dozen others among the 58 Republicans who make up the House majority.
Democrats in the House sent a full letter saying they would like greater, organized say-so in West Virginia’s approach to the pandemic — including more oversight of the enormous federal relief package.
“Quite frankly, it has been far too long for you to serve in a role that many have begun to describe as dictatorial,” the Democratic delegates wrote.
“Neither you nor anyone else in your administration should be operating under the false belief that you (or anybody else) should possess sole authority when it comes to spending S1.25 Billion dollars of taxpayer money and, further, making decisions that affect every individual and business in the state.”
The Democratic delegates alluded to the likelihood of the virus affecting life in West Virginia well into the fall and winter.
“You may very well keep West Virginia under a ‘state of emergency’ during that time, which will mean that the state will be under such designation for nearly a year,” they wrote. “Failure to have legislative input for such an extraordinary amount of time is unacceptable to not just us, but also, to the citizens we represent.”
Justice has described participating in daily meetings with his administration’s revenue officials, as well as the guidance of consultants, including the Bailey & Glasser law firm from Charleston, which has also represented Justice personally in a now-inactive criminal defense case and Justice’s campaign in legal matters surrounding his re-election bid.
And the governor met once over lunch with what was called a task force of legislative leaders from both parties before publicly rolling out his priorities for the $1.25 billion.
Since the lunch meeting, Justice has described informal meetings with lawmakers, particularly Senate President Mitch Carmichael and Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, both Republicans.
Today, he talked about the task force as if it is still active but he did not describe any other specific times it has met.
“We’ll be meeting more and more. We’ll be meeting this afternoon with some of the people. We are soliciting any kind of thought to come to us,” he said.
Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, said it’s time for the full Legislature to be involved.
“The governor is dealing with an emergency that when this first came about in March, we were told two weeks; get ahead of the curve. That turned into a month, then we changed the date of the election, more emergency orders came out,” Steele said today on “Radio Roundtable” on WJLS-AM Radio in Beckley.
“Now we find ourselves four months down the road in a state of emergency.”
Steele said the situation is lining up to continue to some unknown point in the future.
“We don’t foresee that ending any time soon,” he said. “And you have a number of specific actions taken that go beyond any one situation. It’s not that these legislators are particularly disagreeing with the type of action the governor’s taken; it’s the process in which it’s taken,” Steele said.
He said the current situation blurs the separation of powers.
“You never have an executive who has the power to make law and then enforce it; has the power to appropriate money and then spend it,” Steele said.
Delegate John Kelly, R-Wood, wrote an opinion article for his hometown Parkersburg News and Sentinel, arguing in favor of a special session.
Kelly said the Legislature needs to be able to review and appropriate the governor’s spending proposals.
“While Gov. Jim Justice has been exercising the emergency powers given to him by law to respond to disasters, now that we’re several months into a crisis that may well last into next year, it’s time for a more traditional government response,” Kelly wrote.
“It’s time for the West Virginia Legislature to be called into session to address the traditional government response.”
The Legislature also needs to be able to review what’s necessary to safely open schools in the fall, Kelly wrote. He indicated federal guidelines may collide with state laws such as the one requiring 180 days of classroom instruction.
“Given how intricate our education laws are — for both student education and teacher and administrative requirements — it’s easy to imagine many scenarios where the health guidelines won’t comport with the laws on the books,” Kelly wrote.
“That’s why I believe it’s time for the Legislature to get back to work.”
Delegate Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, agreed that lawmakers have a duty to check the power of the executive.
“Too much power concentrated in the hands of too few establishes a dangerous precedent for the future,” McGeehan said.
“No one I know is contesting the Governor’s intentions. But no matter how noble the intentions behind it are, remaining faithful to the truth that the oath of office necessarily imposes comes first.”
The Legislature’s powers, McGeehan noted, include the power of the purse and the authority to make law.
“Strong limitations against the executive branch are necessary to prevent these from being infringed upon,” McGeehan said. “The alternative of doing nothing only stands to legitimize the exercise of arbitrary power — eroding the classical check-and-balance system from our American tradition.”
Justice, speaking during a briefing today, disagreed.
The governor said he won’t be the one to call legislators to the Capitol.
“From my standpoint, calling us back in is unnecessary. It’s expensive,” he said.
“If it happens, it’ll have to happen on somebody else’s watch from the standpoint of somebody calling us in other than me.”