Constitutional Amendments Widely Discussed Early in Legislative Session
House and Senate lawmakers introduced 28 joint resolutions in just the first week of the legislative session each calling for amendments to the state constitution. Some around the Capitol say such a number feels like a lot, while others say it’s rather normal. What is agreed upon, though, is that it is rare to have so many proposed constitutional amendments gaining traction this early in the session.
Long before the Legislature convened for the 2018 Regular Session, discussions surrounding a constitutional amendment that could repeal the state’s business inventory tax had already begun among House and Senate leaders, as well as Governor Jim Justice’s office. That tax -- which has brought in, on average, about $140 million in revenue annually over the past 10 years -- provides money that helps fund counties, particularly public education.
Republicans argue the tax makes it harder to attract businesses to the state and cite studies done by previous administrations that have called for its repeal. Some Democrats have questioned the measures as far as the long-term fiscal shape of the state, but are open to the idea -- as long as county funding remains intact.
“I think there will be several people who will support that as long as the counties are made whole and don't lose money as a result of that. And, you know, that money goes to education,” said Senate Minority Whip Corey Palumbo. “We don't want to defund public education. The question is whether there's going to be enough money to to make sure the counties are still okay.”
Following reports last year of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals’ lavish spending on furniture and other office decorations, lawmakers are also considering various resolutions that could place the judicial branch’s budget under the Legislature’s review. This also would take a vote from the public to ratify an amendment to the state’s constitution.
“There's been a lot of rumblings around that for years but nobody wanted step on the Supreme Court's toes. But we're the only state that doesn't have some type of oversight of their budget -- of the supreme court's budget,” said Del. Michael Folk, who introduced one of many measures that would address the matter.
During budget hearings in front of the House and Senate Finance committees, Supreme Court Chief Justice Allen Loughry referred to the reports of high-dollar spending as “isolated” and promises, moving forward, he’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“The Chief Justice's remarks as far as not being aware of the overspending is not a good argument, because -- you know, obviously, if he's not aware of it and they have full authority over their budget -- then maybe we should have oversight and we should let the citizens decide at the ballot box and whether this constitution amendment should pass,” Folk said.
Another issue gaining traction would call for the a restructuring of the state Board of Education. A resolution in the Senate would allow the Legislature to pass laws to control the structure of the board. Over in the House, HJR 103 -- a resolution with more specific language -- would give the Legislature oversight of the Board of Education’s rule-making process. It also calls for the board to be reduced to nine members -- six of whom would be elected and three appointed by the governor.
Currently, the governor appoints nine of the boards 12 members -- with the remaining three non-voting ex-officio members who respectively serve in the role of state superintendent of schools, chancellor of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, and chancellor of Community and Technical College Education.
Del. Paul Espinosa is sponsoring the resolution that could bring about these changes.
“My preference would be to establish a relatively small districts around the state so that you have equal representation around the state. I know in the Eastern Panhandle, for example -- which is the area the state that I represent -- we've had representatives on the state school board from time to time but it hasn’t been very consistent,” Espinosa said.
“It would be my hope that, by electing six of those state school board members, you can ensure that you have representation from around the state,” he added.
Those opposed to the measure, including the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, argue that the influence of money could give educators a lesser chance of serving and muddy the functions of the board with politics.
Another issue gaining early traction is abortion. While not yet formally introduced this session, many rumblings around the Capitol indicate a resolution is coming that could limit or possibly end taxpayer-funded abortions through Medicaid.
Some Democrats are already voicing concerns about the motivation for a such a measure.
“I just worry that, you know, one of the ideas that's floating around it's being done for electioneering purposes to draw out the ballot. These are things that they think would excite the base of the majority party,” said Del. Barbara Fleischauer.
“So, I worry about that. But, you know we're going to deal with things on a topic-by-topic basis and try to be objective.”
With so many constitutional amendments being discussed and garnering so much attention, many lawmakers point out that citizens should be reminded that they would have the final say on any of these issues under the Legislature’s consideration.
Senate Judiciary Chair Charlie Trump said they’re keeping this in mind, particularly the language used that would inevitably translate to the ballot.
“You know for some constitutional amendments it's impossible to print the entire text of the amendment on a ballot,” Trump said. “So, it is important that the ballot is worded in such a fashion that the people do understand what the effect of its ratification would be.”
As for the number of resolutions currently being discussed, Trump said he has full faith that the voting public will be able to make sense of each measure.
“I don't worry about the voters being confused. I think we make a mistake any time we underestimate the citizens of the state. It is after all their constitution and we are all bound by whatever it says and the citizens have the right retain the right to direct what the constitution will say and provide,” said Trump.
Resolutions calling for constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority of both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s signature before going to a vote of ratification by the general public via a ballot measure.