This is a developing story and will be updated.
A controversial piece of legislation focused on overhauling public education continues to move quickly through the West Virginia Senate. Lawmakers adopted a motion Monday, Jan. 28, to skip the bill’s second reference to the Senate Finance Committee and instead bring the bill before the full Senate as the Committee of the Whole.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo moved to bypass a second reference to the Finance Committee and bring the bill in front of the entire body -- with the full Senate serving as a committee.
Democrats took issue with the motion, questioning why the Senate would bypass the bill's second reference to the Finance Committee.
"The spectacle that we're creating here on the floor just doesn't make sense. I would hope that for the integrity of this body in this Legislature, if you have any sense of responsibility that you vote this motion down," Senate Mintority Leader Roman Prezioso said. "This is egregious. This is something that I've never seen before. I'd have to go back to the archives to find the last time that this was ever done. I can't even imagine a legislative body doing this."
According to the chamber's parlimentarian, the Senate last adopted a motion to establish a Committee of the Whole in 1974.
Republicans in the majority argued that bypassing the Finance Committee -- and establishing a Committee of the Whole -- would allow for all of the members to digest the bill and question experts on the measure's various components.
“It's a tool to have a better process for making sure all members are educated. It's a committee -- it is not the Senate having deliberations,” Senate Finance Chair Craig Blair said. “There's a big, big difference between it -- because as a Committee of the Whole, thirty-four members, including our Senate president, will be part of the process. There could be PowerPoint presentations, there could be a normal stuff that takes place in each and every one of our committees.”
Takubo's motion was adopted on a voice vote.
The Senate Education Committee approved a draft version of the bill Friday and then referred the bill to the Finance Committee. Sen. Blair made the motion for the bill to be referenced to his committee.
However, questions about the bill’s viability in that committee began to surface over the weekend. With the 17-member committee composed of ten Republicans and seven Democrats, two votes could have swayed the bill’s fate.
Sen. Bill Hamilton, a Republican, posted Saturday on Facebook that he would vote no on the bill if there were no substantial changes to the bill. Another vote in question would have been Republican Sen. Kenny Mann -- a substitute teacher and former member of the Monroe County Board of Education. Senate President Pro Tempore Donna Boley was absent Monday, putting even more focus on how the Finance Committee's final vote count might turn out.
Now introduced as Senate Bill 451, the measure ties pay raises and funding for the state employee healthcare system to a long list of provisions that education union leaders oppose.
Included in those proposals is the establishment of public charter schools, education savings accounts, raising the teacher-pupil ratio for grades one through six and denying pay during a walkout, among other provisions.
The bill also includes a non-severability clause -- declaring that if any provision of the bill were challenged in court and held invalid, the entire piece of legislation would be null and void.
Takubo’s motion to bring the bill in front of the Committee of the Whole came shortly a coalition of six education unions held a news conference to again announce their opposition to the bill.
“We can’t find a West Virginia parent, a West Virginia teacher, a West Virginia school service person, a West Virginia principal or a county school superintendent who was consulted about this bill,” American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia president Fred Albert said at the news conference.
Democratic Sen. Mike Woelfel called a point of order on the motion based on the state constitution’s single object provision. Senate President Mitch Carmichael ruled Woelfel’s point of order not well taken and was not the purview of the Senate. After Woelfel challenged Carmichael’s ruling, a nearly party line vote sustained that that ruling, with Sen. Mann being the only Republican to break with his party.
Teachers from all 55 of West Virginia’s counties walked off the job for nine days during the 2018 legislative session over many of the same issues included in this year’s bill.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael will appoint a chair of the Committee of the Whole. A meeting of that committee will be scheduled in the coming days.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the last time the Senate established a Committee of the Whole was 1961. This story has been updated to reflect the correct date of the last time a Committee of the Whole was established by the chamber.