West Virginia’s Senate could determine whether there’s a special session to oversee the governor’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, particularly his priorities for $1.25 billion in federal relief.
It’s shaping up as a longshot, though.
Although some members of the Senate say they favor a special session, there don’t yet appear to be the 21 senators required for a supermajority to call themselves in.
More than 60 members of the House of Delegates — three-fifths of the 100 delegates — have already signed letters calling for a special session.
Governor Justice, a Republican, has said that would devolve into grandstanding.
“These outcasts or oddballs that are running this scenario from the standpoint of the Republican side and if they don’t watch out they are going to gut their entire party,” the governor has said.
Justice says he has no interest in calling the special session himself.
“If they want to call themselves back in, let ’em call themselves back in and I’ll sit on the sidelines and watch but I’m not going to help them,” the governor said
So it’s up to senators to break the tie.
Of the 34 senators, 21 would be the required supermajority.
Twelve of the Senate’s 14 Democrats signed a letter this month outlining spending priorities such as public education safety while also calling for a special session.
“We urge you to convene the Legislature with the prior agreement of a limited and agreed-to call which provides for oversight and transparency of fund distribution,” they wrote. “We believe our Constitution requires nothing less.”
At least two of the 20 Senate Republicans, Randy Smith and Mike Azinger, said they were sending letters to the governor to request a special session. Some others may be considering their own letters.
“My feeling is the governor should call us back in and at least appoint an oversight committee,” said Smith, R-Tucker. “I just don’t feel he’s real trustworthy in an election year. I just feel us elected officials should have some say so in where the money is going.”
Smith has been concerned that a special session could result in lawmakers pursuing too many objectives, spiraling out of control. What he really wants is to put pressure on the governor to establish a panel of lawmakers from both chambers and parties who would have meaningful say-so.
Justice has described a “task force” of legislative leaders that has met twice to discuss the allocation of $1.25 billion in federal relief. The governor said that group met Friday, but it wasn’t an open meeting and the governor did not say which lawmakers participated. Justice did describe some of the topics that were discussed.
Smith said the push for a special session would pressure Justice to take legislative involvement seriously.
“As long as he has one body that says they’re not going to call it,” Smith said. “He’s pretty bold with his statements right now because he thinks the Senate is not going to call to go back in.”
Azinger, R-Wood, is interested in checks on executive power. He has signed on to a court challenge of the governor’s emergency powers.
Azinger is troubled by executive orders that have closed private businesses and mandated citizens wear face coverings. Azinger and other legislators also question how long a state of emergency would last during a pandemic.
“He seems at this point kind of impervious to any outside pressures, but who knows what goes on behind the scenes. So he’s still passing down these edicts. Those are the ones that bother me the most – the mask thing and a certain number of people in churches and businesses. He just doesn’t have a constitutional right to do these things,” he said.
“I agree with the House members that there should be oversight with the $1.25 billion too. A billion and a quarter worth of cash, what could go wrong? Everybody needs accountability, and everybody needs oversight. Me, you, the governor, the Legislature.”
Senate leadership is in flux right now because of the Primary Election loss of President Mitch Carmichael.
Several members of the current Senate leadership have made public statements indicating they don’t believe a special session is necessary.
Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, has said he’s not in favor of a special session but would like an active steering committee. Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, told the Ogden Newspapers that Justice has been open to recommendations.
“He has accepted lots of input from members of the Legislature,” Trump said.
Carmichael, the outgoing Senate president, also has said there’s no need for a special session. He reiterated that view last week on “580 Live” on WCHS Radio.
“It’s been my opinion, up until this point — and I hope it continues — that the governor has sought the input of the legislative branch and has made the decisions based on our input.
“Now I will totally shift gears if that changes. If we feel he is not seeking input and so forth, then we will definitely want to call ourselves into special session and make those changes that are necessary for the people’s input.”
More members of the Senate’s Republican majority also said they are against a special session.
Senator Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, said he has been troubled by some of the governor’s closure orders.
“I’m a person in business who has been dramatically affected, personally, by so many executive orders that have come down. I found many of them to be arbitrary,” said Tarr, who runs physical therapy and exercise centers. “So a lot of the things that were done, I didn’t agree with.”
But Tarr has concluded a special session would be unworkable. Steering $1.25 billion as a bill through committee votes and then floor votes in two houses would require a feat of consensus-building, he said.
Then if the result wound up being vetoed, he said, more time would be wasted.
“So the risk of wasting millions and millions of taxpayer dollars to go up and do a special session that has little to no impact on the $1.25 billion is very real and could do more harm than good,” Tarr said.
Tarr is interested in exploring limits of how long the governor’s emergency powers may remain in place. But he said that could be accomplished when the regular session resumes next February.
“You can do those things during the regular session and really by the timeline have the same impact,” he said.
Senator Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, is also wary of a special session.
“I’m not really in favor of it at this point. If you call ourselves into session, it’s going to wind up being open season and no one knows how long it could last,” Clements said.
He suggested a more efficient format would be meaningful, organized oversight sessions with members of both houses and parties.
Clements is concerned about the cost and also about the possible health effects of gathering 134 lawmakers and staff together. He made reference to a coronavirus outbreak that hit 26 members of the Mississippi Legislature.
“I think calling a special session would be very dangerous at this point – health-wise and financially,” he said.