OPINION: The Special Circus

By Del. Bill Ridenour, R-Jefferson

On Sunday, 6 August, the Governor announced from a groaning golf cart that he was calling a special session three hours before the session began at 4:00pm. I found out at 1:46, giving me little more than two hours for a five-hour drive. The Governor showed his typical disregard for much of the state, giving many legislators nowhere near enough time to get to the session before it began. Many of us were forced to drive at breakneck speed to get there to try to defend against Justice’s Socialist spending agenda.

We’d been told there might be a special session during interim committee meetings scheduled for Monday, so most legislators had prepared to go to Charleston, but there was no confirmation that the session would be Sunday afternoon. The GOP had a Zoom call earlier in the week to discuss potential special session issues, specifically on Volunteer Fire Departments.

On Saturday 5 August, the House leadership sent seven draft bills regarding our Corrections crisis, where we have deployed the National Guard for a year to our prison system. This, of course, follows the similar 2018 National Guard deployment to support our Corrections staff. This is costing taxpayers $19 million dollars a year to reimburse the federal government, and is not solving the crisis.

We also received unrelated five bills before the special session that had nothing to do with the reasons we were going into special session.

When the legislature convened, we did not face the expected 15 bills, but rather 90 bills that the Governor was trying to jam through for reasons I suspect did not reflect the actual needs of the state.  Half of these were duplicates, so if one part of the Legislature defeated a bill, the leadership could jam it through again.  Many of these were spending bills, including massive amounts for the Governor to spend on ‘projects’ of dubious value– hence the name – Special Circus.

By the time I arrived, 14 bills had already been processed.  Some bills made sense, such as several fixes to the PEIA bill we passed in the regular session.  One of the important bills we passed was a fix to help taxpayers with the tax credits for property taxes we passed in the regular session.  The attached graphic provides an explanation.

Part Two:

As I noted in Part One of the Special Circus, we saw breakneck driving feats by delegates and senators sprinting to Charleston. At the session, we also saw sleight-of-hand tricks, as magicians made millions of taxpayer dollars disappear.

In SB 1001/HB 101 and SB 1002/HB 102 (remember the trick of duplicate bills to jam things through if Conservatives defeated one of the two), the Governor wanted $100 million dollars for a ‘Rainy Day’ fund, which we nick-named “The Jim Justice Senate Campaign Fund.” To the great credit of our Finance Committee leadership, they defeated all of these bills, so this circus act fell off the trapeze. It was beautiful.

Unfortunately, the Governor threw several other major spending bills at the legislature that, despite strenuous efforts by Conservatives, cost the taxpayers more of our hard-earned money.

The worst of these was SB 1017/HB 117 which gave $45 million to the Governor’s alma mater, Marshall University, for a cyber security program. This was outrageous. This should have only been considered in the regular session, where it would go through the Education and Finance Committees, and been fully vetted. It should never have been put into a special session focused on Corrections and Emergency Services issues. This was a shady backdoor way to get money to Marshall. This is the same Jim Justice who gave $13.8 million to Marshall for a baseball stadium, instead of using that money to work on our critical Corrections crisis.

Marshall’s endowment was $205 million in 2022. That endowment should have been the source of funding for this cyber program if Marshall really felt it and the stadium were really necessary, not the money of hard-working West Virginians.

Is this program even necessary? Corporatists insist this is critical to develop cyber security professionals. Two of my sons are in cyber security, neither having gotten a cyber security degree, so I informed the House that this is actually unnecessary as the means to get cyber security jobs requires passing four principal tests, none of which entails a college degree and building student debt. Passing the Security+ test alone will almost certainly get you nearly $80-100,000 per year, with no need for four years at college. These courses are self-study or can be done with tutors, and can be assisted with various free and subscribed videos.

Marshall already has a cyber security program that I toured in May. It is in an adequate facility and the program appears well run, offering both Master’s and Bachelor’s degrees. I saw no reason for the taxpayers to put $45 million into this program and facility. If this program was truly necessary, why didn’t Marshall get a grant from it’s supposed partner, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, or from the cyber security industry? These jobs are in tremendous demand, so why have not the businesses and government entities who desperately need cyber security personnel not stepped up to offer to pay for the facility and program? And if this is truly important to Jim Justice, why didn’t he donate his own money for both this facility and the baseball stadium? Why are the poor people of West Virginia now funding this program?

All these issues would have come up in during regular session committee meetings and would have been fully vetted, and probably would not have passed, which I believe why it was inserted via sleight-of-hand in the Special Circus. We ended up spending far more on the Governor’s alma mater than we did to address our Corrections and Emergency Services crises combined. This is a disgusting, unethical misuse of the People’s money.

This type of deception has repeatedly cost our state hundreds of millions of dollars. It is the type of corruption that we should be rooting out of our state government. The Conservatives came just short of stopping this venture. The Democrats, of course, sided with the corporatists, who swayed to many other delegates to vote with them. We need more legislators to step up to bring an end to this immoral corporatism and level the playing field for all West Virginians.

To many bills such as this were jammed through this Special Circus that mal-focused the legislature on issues that had nothing to do with the ostensible reason we were there – to resolve our Corrections and Emergency Services crises.

Montani Semper Liberi!
Bill Ridenour

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