House Moves to Terminate the W.Va. Women's Commission

Feb 24, 2017

Delegates are beginning to consider bills that would cut some state agencies, no matter how big or how small they are. Members of one committee Friday looked at a bill that would put an end to an agency that receives about $150,000 in annual funding.

House Bill 2646 would get rid of the West Virginia Women’s Commission. It’s a small state agency with just two employees, one of whom works part-time. The House Government Organization Committee considered the bill Friday morning – where its sponsors defended the proposal.

The West Virginia Women’s Commission was created by the state Legislature in 1977. It’s a bi-partisan organization under the state Department of Health and Human Resources with a mission to promote women through advocacy, research, and education. Over the past few years, one of the commission’s  main focuses has been to encourage women to run for legislative office, boards, or commissions through recruiting and training events.

Chair of the Women’s Commission Stacy North says she feels if the agency is shutdown, it would be detrimental to West Virginia.

“Image-wise, I think it’d be horrible," North said, "I mean, it’s neglecting a huge segment of the population. It’s making it look like we don’t care. So, that would be a horrific move.”

The House Government Organization Committee discussed the bill at length Friday morning. Vice-Chair Delegate Lynne Arvon of Raleigh County noted the Commission has done good things for some women, but she feels the group’s mission is one that can be found through other organizations.

“I see a lot of overlapping responsibility here, and to me what we’re trying to do, this year particularly with the budget we have, even though their budget’s between $150,000 to $200,000 each year, some people just think that’s just a drop in the bucket, maybe, but every drop in the bucket adds up," Arvon explained, "and I’m looking at ways we can start eliminating duplicative services. I don’t believe the Women’s Commission should be a government funded commission.”

That didn’t seem to satisfy the minority party in committee, however. Democratic members of the committee disagreed with Arvon, including Delegate Mike Caputo of Marion County.

“They're the go-to group for women to hopefully find avenues to get where they need to be, and more importantly, they’re a non-partisan group," Caputo said, "This group has been very clear about their non-partisanship, about what they do for the state of West Virginia, and I find it very odd that the bill was partisan; every sponsor on the bill is from the majority party, so we’re not seeing any bi-partisan effort here in whether this is a good idea or not.”

The House bill has a total of 8 sponsors, all of whom are Republican women. Even so, Democratic Delegate Michael Ferro of Marshall County says he worries about the public’s perception of the action.

“In the eyes of the general public, it is gonna look like, as my colleague from Marion said, that 23 men are taking a personal front against women. That might not be the case; that might not be the intent of the sponsors, but I guarantee that, that’s the perception that’s gonna be out there,” Ferro explained.

The bill’s lead sponsor, Delegate Kayla Kessinger of Fayette County, says the Commission is unnecessary, and she says the work the commission does, particularly around election recruitment, is something women in the state are capable of doing on their own.

“I think every woman that is currently serving and has served in West Virginia has won based on her merits, her character, and voters willingness to believe in them,” she said.

Kessinger says she understands the concerns, but she still fully believes in the proposal.

"But the fact of the matter is, women are completely capable of becoming significant and achieving their dreams and goals on their own without government assistance," Kessinger noted, "and I think that is what truly empowers women is the ability to accomplish their dreams, their goals without relying on the government.”

Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer is one of just two democratic women in the House of Delegates. She opposes the bill.

“Women in West Virginia are not doing as well in comparison to the rest of the country or in comparison to the world," Fleischauer explained, "I mean, United States women lag behind when it comes to the number of women in elected office, than it comes to women on corporate boards, than it comes to women graduates - I mean we’re far behind in many countries when it comes to graduation from college, and we need to do better.”

House Bill 2646 was voted out of committee and will be sent to the full chamber for a vote that’s likely to come next week. Female representation in the West Virginia Legislature is at its lowest rate since 1984. After the 2016 election, just 18 members of the House of Delegates and Senate are women.