The Governor Might be in Charge, but the Senate President has the Power

Dec 1, 2016

This weekend, members of the West Virginia Legislature will return to Charleston for their December interim meetings.

Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate will meet behind closed doors Sunday separately to choose the next Senate President and House Speaker, and the two chamber minority leaders, all influential posts.

But with a Democratic governor and a Republican majority in both legislative chambers, there’s one position that seems to control policy a little more than the others: West Virginia's next Senate President.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael during a Senate floor session.
Credit Perry Bennett / West Virginia Legislative Photography

“I probably would take exception to that a little bit,” Republican Sen. Mitch Carmichael said when asked about the balance of power in the statehouse.

Carmichael has 16 years of legislative experience and in all likelihood will be the next Senate President.

The Senator, like most people, points to the governor as the elected official with the most power  in state government. 

"It’s easier to understand," West Virginia University Political Science Department Chair Scott Crichlow said, explaining that common narrative. 

"A governor, a president, that’s one person. It’s very easy to see them as the embodiment of government because there is just one of them.”

West Virginia's governor does have a lot of power, including setting the state's revenue estimates and directing state agencies how to interpret the laws the Legislature has written.

“We can direct it from policy, but the implementation of it is, really a lot of authority goes to the executive branch,” Carmichael said.

The Legislature, however, has a lot of authority too, and the two people who sit at its helm, the House Speaker and Senate President, get to make a lot of decisions.

“The Senate President directs all agendas, decides what will be voted on and what will not be voted on, decides who heads every committee, also decides whether or not something even gets debated." Democratic Sen. Mike Romano said.

"So that’s a tremendous amount of control when you can stop any piece of legislation that you choose to or have any piece of legislation considered if you want it to be.”

That list of powers is also true of the House Speaker, but if you look back at the previous two legislative session since Republicans took control of both chambers, it’s very clear that if a bill was going to be passed, that bill started in the Senate.

Now that could be because of personality-- former Senate President and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Cole was a strong leader who had firm stances on policy. 

Democratic Sen. Mike Romano, left, speaks with former Sen. Jack Yost, right, during a 2016 floor session.
Credit Martin Valent / West Virginia Legislative Photography

Or because of term length-- Senators serve for four years while Delegates only serve for two, therefore, Senators are often thought to be more pragmatic rather than responsive, but Romano said it’s also just the sheer numbers.

“It’s a lot easier to herd 34 Senators than it is to herd 100 House of Delegate members,” Romano said.

There are checks and balances built into our government framework to make sure all three branches have their own authority, but when it comes to policy, when it comes to moving the state solidly in a single direction, who decides? 

In West Virginia, the governor actually isn’t as powerful as others because of one Constitutional provision-- the simple majority veto override, a provision only a handful of other states also have.

When lawmakers don’t agree with a gubernatorial veto, they only have to get a simple majority of the votes in each chamber (or half plus one) to override that decision and make a bill law.

Republican lawmakers have exercised that power more than a few times over the past two years. During the 2016 Legislative Session, they overrode vetoes to repeal the state’s prevailing wage, make West Virginia a right-to-work state, allow people to carry concealed weapons without a permit, and prohibit certain types of abortions, all bills that were considered divisive in the chambers.

Romano called the simple majority veto one of the biggest weaknesses he can see in the state’s Constitution. After all, for Congress to override a Presidential veto, two-thirds of the members of both chambers must vote to do so, or a super majority.

But for Carmichael, those votes to override vetoes seemed less controversial. 

Jim Justice gave his victory speech in the main ballroom of the Greenbrier Resort after winning the 2016 race for governor.
Credit Walter Scriptunas II / AP

He said his party will welcome Democratic Governor-elect Jim Justice’s ideas to move the state forward, but if the two branches disagree, the Legislature will not back down.

“We are going to do what’s right for the people of West Virginia as we see it and to the extent that one person in the executive branch disagrees, if the majority of the people’s representatives do agree with that policy position, we will not hesitate to override gubernatorial vetoes and make our will known,” Carmichael said.

This weekend, lawmakers will caucus in Charleston to unofficially choose the next leaders of each chamber.

Carmichael is expected to become the next Senate President, and Speaker Tim Armstead will likely maintain his control of the House. The official votes for chamber leadership take place on the first day of the Legislative session.