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THE BACK PEW–Jan 11, 2023

By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV

The 86th West Virginia Legislature convenes today. Republicans hold all constitutional offices, 88 of 100 House seats, and 31 of 34 Senate seats. We live in a one-party state.  But if you think that means the trains will all run on time, think again. We are in for a ride over these next 60 days. 

TAX CUTS. Over the past year and half, a $2 billion budget surplus accumulated in West Virginia. Every politician (in both parties) says they want to use at least some of it to provide tax relief to citizens. Governor Justice, Senate Republicans, and House Republicans all want different combinations of tax cuts. To date, citizens have received nothing. Will it change this legislative session? Maybe.

POWER STRUGGLE–Rs vs Rs. I say “maybe” because there is major internal strife among Republicans in Charleston. Partly because there are so many of them; there are bound to be personality conflicts. Partly because of ideological differences; they hold differing views on tax policy. Partly because, like in Washington, a certain group just wants to gum up the works and grind everything to a halt. Partly because so many are running for higher office and are trying to score political points. For the past couple of years, they all played nice in the sandbox. That all ends this session. I anticipate the power struggle, which to this point has occurred behind closed doors, will spill out into public view. 

EMERGENCY POWERS. Expect the Senate to advance legislation removing/restricting the governor’s power to declare emergencies on day one. They will say he overreached during COVID and they prefer a more balanced approach where legislators have a say in emergency declarations. The real issue is the aforementioned power struggle. The Republican supermajority does not need Governor Justice, or any governor, for any practical reason. They can make laws, override vetoes, and set a budget. All on their own with no checks and balances. I personally think that approach is awful for the state, but I expect them to pursue it. House Republicans could hold the keys. Will they side with Senate Republicans or with the governor? Or will they restrict the governor’s power even more than the Senate?

DHHR. Sorry to sound like a broken record, but the drama over DHHR is part of the same power struggle. A little context first. DHHR is the state’s largest agency, accounting for half the state budget. In addition to facing questions about whether they spend money efficiently and effectively, they also face a federal civil rights investigation which comes on the heels of an agreement with the federal government reached in 2019 over treatment of children in their care.  An opioid crisis on top of a foster crisis on top of a pandemic exposed all the cracks in the foundation. DHHR is an executive agency, meaning they report to the governor’s office. The legislature wants to break them up into two or three smaller agencies with new cabinet secretaries they help choose, while the governor wants to maintain full control of DHHR. Which is why this issue is now wrapped up in the larger power struggle. The Senate will pass a bill on day one splitting the agency in three parts, and then the ball will be in the court of the House.

PEIA. As you can read about in our news stories, PEIA is sailing in rough waters right now. Some medical providers refuse to take PEIA due to low reimbursement rates. This impacts patients directly. Expect the Senate to take up a bill on day one to increase those reimbursement rates. The same bill passed the Senate unanimously last year but the House never took it up due to concerns from the governor’s office. Yes, that same power struggle is wrapped up in this issue as well, because no one wants to be seen as taking responsibility for negative impacts on patients. Folks I talk to could care less about blame; they just want their insurance to do its job.

THANK YOU. When I first began writing “The Back Pew” some 11 years ago, I never thought it would grow into a statewide audience. Thank you so much for reading! The column will continue on The Real WV at least weekly during the legislative session. (More often when the circus gets really raucous.) 

Stay tuned here for the latest. We will do our best to provide you real news via the articles and real insight via the editorials. 

That is the view from the back pew. May God bless you.


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