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House Judiciary Committee Walks Back Amendment To Bill Reeling In Governor’s Emergency Powers

Perry Bennett
West Virginia Legislative Photography
Del. Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, looks over a bill in a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021.

Members of the House Judiciary Committee voted Monday to rescind an amendment to a bill that would limit the governor’s emergency powers. The amendment, adopted Saturday, would have made it clear that the bill applies to any current state of emergency or state of preparedness.

The lower chamber’s Judiciary Committee approved House Bill 2003 Saturday. But lawmakers on the committee returned to the measure Monday afternoon and decided to strip away the amendment offered Saturday by Del. Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock.

House Bill 2003 would limit a state of emergency declaration to 60 days. It would also allow the Legislature to extend that declaration 30 additional days or remove the declaration altogether.

McGeehan’s amendment would have added the following line to the bill: “Upon passage any state of emergency or state of preparedness currently in effect is subject to the provisions of this section.”

The intent of the amendment was to offer the Legislature an opportunity to have a say if — and how — the state of emergency as a result of the pandemic would continue.

By order of Gov. Jim Justice, West Virginia has been under a state of emergency related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic since March 16, 2020. Since then, the governor has acted unilaterally in handling the state’s response to the virus, although lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have attempted to exert some influence.

Lawmakers’ efforts to call themselves back into a special session in July gained traction in the House but failed to materialize in the Senate.

In the Monday afternoon meeting of the House Judiciary Committee, McGeehan seemed to acknowledge that his amendment was bound to be stripped from the bill, even despite it’s approval over the weekend.

“I'm not gonna try to convince anybody that this language should stay in the bill,” McGeehan said. “Seems like everyone has their mind made up.”

Del. Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, spoke in favor of McGeehan’s amendment remaining in the bill. He and other Democrats said it would be in the best interest of their constituents to make the bill apply to the current state of emergency that’s been in effect since March.

“Obviously, the necessity for this amendment is clear today. Because, since we voted on it in a bipartisan manner, debated at length in a bipartisan manner, and passed it out of here in a bipartisan manner, it made somebody upset in the executive office — old king himself,” said Fluharty, alluding to Justice. “So we came back in here and we're reneging on our promises made to our constituents.”

Del. Tom Fast, R-Fayette, spoke against keeping McGeehan’s amendment, echoing sentiments made Saturday by committee chairman Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, that it wasn’t necessary.

“I believe the language in the bill would cover the present situation without the amendment. And I think this is necessary to take this action,” Fast said. “And so I would also urge rejection of the amendment.”

Committee members voted 15-10 to scrap McGeehan’s amendment from the bill, with all Democrats and Del. Chris Pritt, R-Kanawha, joining McGeehan in voting to keep it.

The House Judiciary Committee later voted to send the bill back to the floor, where it is on pace to be up for passage by the end of the week.

A native of Washington, West Virginia, Dave Mistich joined West Virginia Public Broadcasting in October of 2012, as the Charleston Reporter. After bouncing around a variety of newsroom roles at WVPB, he now focuses on state-level politics and government, as well as breaking news. Dave plays on the world's best-worst softball team, Chico's Bail Bonds. He can be reached via email at dmistich@wvpublic.org and you can follow him on Twitter @davemistich.

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