BACK PEW: Politics is outweighing policy so far this session

By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV

January 21, 2024

While legislative leadership is talking publicly about bread & butter issues like child care and economic development, the tenor of this legislative is much different on a day to day basis. Why is that? In this week’s column, I dive into the politics, rather than the policies, that are driving this legislative session.

BEST DAY OF THE LEGISLATIVE SESSION  If you blinked, you might have missed it. Yesterday was the best day of the legislative session. Due to the “state of emergency,” neither the House nor the Senate had enough legislators present to conduct business. So they gaveled in, got paid, and adjourned until Monday. 

Why was this the best day of the session, you ask? Because at least they didn’t do any harm, and that’s about all we can hope for these days. 

You might call me a cynic, and you might be right. But don’t call me anything until you spend six years in the capitol. That experience taught me more than I cared to learn about human nature. 

PHOTO ID FOR FOOD STAMPS  For example, there’s been some outrage this week over a bill to require everyone on food stamps to have a photo identification. Is there food stamp fraud? Yes. Would requiring a photo ID eliminate that fraud? The director of the program testified that retailers, such as grocery stores, couldn’t even use the photo ID. 

So why are legislators voting on a bill that is useless? Because…politics. It looks good for them to be “tough on fraud.” A few die-hards think it will help, but most know it’s just for show. Why don’t they vote against it, then? Because then the lobbyists and other politicians will attack them in the next election. 

DEATH PENALTY  Or another example–the return of the death penalty. Senate President Craig Blair is sponsoring a bill to give anyone dealing fentanyl the death penalty. He says he doesn’t believe anyone will actually be put to death, but he wants to send a message. In other words, they want to look “tough on crime,” but they admit their proposed solution won’t lead to any less crime. It will simply look good in the next election. (Blair has two opponents in his primary, after barely being elected in 2020.)  

RESIGNATIONS  Speaking of the next election, several candidates for statewide office who serve in the House of Delegates resigned before the start of this session. Moore Capito (who’s running for governor) and Caleb Hanna (who’s running for Auditor). Several people have asked me why they would resign before the legislative session? 

It’s a fair question, and I think there are a few reasons. First, they don’t want to be on record voting on all the ridiculous bills coming out of this legislature. It’s just not worth the time or the headache to them. Second, when the legislature is in session, there’s no time to campaign. None. You are tied to Charleston 24/7. And they want to be out and about, raising money and making speeches. Third, sometimes you just get tired of the rat race. Capito and Hanna both want higher office, but they may have had enough of being one of one hundred delegates. 

That being said, I understand why some of their voters feel betrayed. They were elected to do a job. They are choosing to quit that job in order to try and get another job. It’s not a good look in my opinion. 

THE LATEST NEWS  We post multiple news stories daily with all the latest from the legislative session at www.therealwv.com. Visit the website, see our social media, or sign up for our free e-newsletter so you can stay up-to-date with the latest news.

WHY SO QUIET? So far, the session has been rather quiet, mostly consisting of repeat discussions from bills that have been recycled for years. Few legislators are speaking publicly about their plans and policy proposals. Part of the reason for the calm is that Republican supermajorities take votes and hold debates behind closed doors, determining the outcome outside of public view. Then they quickly take the action chosen by the majority in public. That won’t last forever. There are deep divisions within the House and Senate caucuses, exacerbated by particular issues and personalities, not to mention heated primary races where colleagues are running against one another. Leadership will make every attempt to have this be a quiet session with a few pieces of red meat everyone in power can agree upon for their political base to call a win. Because the real battlefield this year is the Republican primary, where moderates and the far-right try to outflank each other. I suspect those tensions will ramp up the closer we get to the primary. 

In the meantime, stay tuned to The Real WV for coverage and commentary. We will do our best to keep you updated with daily stories at www.TheRealWV.com

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

Stephen Baldwin is a Presbyterian minister and the former Senate Minority Leader from Greenbrier County. He is the publisher of The Real WV.

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