Short assembly of a long special session
Monday, May 20, the West Virginia Legislature re-convened the extraordinary session it’s actually been in since March 9. This was the first activity of the session.
Convening at around 2:30 p.m. and finishing about five hours later, we took up about three dozen bills and passed most of them.
The session was originally called by Governor Jim Justice to enact K-12 education reform. The Legislature spent many days during this year’s regular session debating such reform, but could not come to agreement. When we got to Charleston on May 20, it was obvious that there was still no proposal for that issue, which could get a majority in both the House of Delegates and the Senate.
Meanwhile, Governor Justice had vetoed about two dozen bills passed during the regular session for technical reasons, and he wanted them re-enacted. He also decided that the state has about $50 million more than he thought we had during the regular session, and wanted that extra money spent in about a dozen “supplementary appropriation” bills.
We passed all but three of the vetoed bills, and all but one of the “supplementals.” No bill was rejected outright, but rather tabled until our next meeting, probably in mid-June.
The passage of those supplementary appropriation bills calls to mind what I believe to be a serious constitutional flaw in our state’s budgetary process. The governor alone is allowed to estimate how much money will flow into the state treasury in a fiscal year. The Legislature is bound by the constitution to use only gubernatorial estimates when budgeting and appropriating money.
Under the American system of government, each of the three branches of government (legislative, executive and judicial) is supposed to be able to check the other two. The founders of our republic thought this would produce a balance in government, preventing anyone from doing anything rash. The “power of the purse” is the traditional check possessed by the legislative branch.
But unable to challenge the governor’s revenue estimates, the Legislature is hamstrung. I think we need a state-level version of the Congressional Budget Office. Such an office would be required to operate in a non-partisan manner, as does the CBO.
Ideally, this office would be created by an amendment to the state constitution. Failing that, we could create it statutorily. While such an office would not permit the Legislature to legally ignore the governor’s estimates, the Legislature would be able to call the attention of the public to any estimate the Legislature believe to be off the mark.
As Memorial Day approached, there was movement on K-12 education. Senate President Mitch Carmichael backed off his demand for “education savings accounts” (a form of vouchers) and signaled he would accept that charter schools, if we approve any, be under the control of local boards of education. He released a new comprehensive K-12 reform proposal (now called the “Student Success Act”) which still contains too many problematic provisions. But he seems to be moving in the right direction.