BACK PEW: Session ends tomorrow

Opinion by Stephen Baldwin, RealWV

Tomorrow is the last day of the legislative session. While legislators  will adjourn “sine die” and head home to their families, a $465 million issue I wrote about last week will continue to loom. 

EDUCATION SPENDING. Last week, delegates revealed that the US Department of Education wanted to know why the state seemingly hadn’t spent as much on education as federal rules required. It could result in a “clawback” where we would essentially owe the feds. The governor and his staff were quick to say that’s unlikely, yet they also pushed the legislature to suddenly allocate $150 million to education spending. Which the House approved. 

That begs a lot of questions. Like, what took so long? Why didn’t we invest in education earlier? If the clawback is as unlikely as they say, then why did they suddenly spend one third of that on the very thing at issue? Will it be enough to satisfy the feds? Will it be enough, more importantly, to help our kids?

Most people asked me this week: What happened to that money? The short answer is that the governor and legislature have been spending it like crazy the last few years on tax breaks, corporate giveaways, promotional contests, baseball fields, staffing jails, and roads, to name a few. Schools did receive more funds as well, but the question from the feds is why they didn’t receive their fair share. From what I hear, county school budgets are looking very, very lean over the next three years. 

PAYRAISES & TAX BREAKS. Related, the fate of payraises for certain public employees and tax breaks for retirees making over $50,0000 annually seem to be on hold due to the budget situation. The House wants to proceed but the Senate prefers to wait and grant those at a later time once the budget situation is clearer. 

IT’S GETTING HOT IN HERE. Speaking of the House and Senate, they’re getting along about as well as two stray cats fighting over supper. The House is mad at the Senate about not passing certain bills they want and vice versa. This sort of thing happens every year, but the divide is deeper this year. The tension was palpable this week. Which could lead to a wild final day tomorrow. 

WV PUBLIC BROADCASTING. As another follow-up to last week’s column, the House approved a Senate bill granting operational control of WV Public Broadcasting to a political appointee–the Curator of Arts, Culture, & History, who has now also been named a Cabinet Secretary. There’s much more to this story. Stay tuned. 

VACCINES. Perhaps the most consequential bill this session in terms of the state’s collective wellbeing is the vaccine exemption bill. It originally just provided a vaccine exemption for certain virtual students but was opened up to include all private, public, parochial, and virtual students before passing the House by a slim margin (against the wishes of leadership). Then this week, the Senate Health Committee (led by two Republican physicians) restricted the vaccine exemption to only private and parochial schools. 

It seems to be a compromise deal which will allow the physicians to save face with their colleagues while also allowing the far-right something to build on for the future. But in my opinion, it’s only delaying the inevitable by opening a dangerous door.

SMOKING IN CARS. Surprisingly, the House passed the Senate’s bill making it a crime to smoke inside a car with a child. This bill passed the Senate several times but hasn’t ever made it past the House. Until now. The governor still must sign it to become law, and I expect he will.

CULTURE WARS. There are so many culture war bills brewing it’s hard to keep track, and those are a big part of the conflict between the bodies. So I’ll update folks on which pass after the session. 

DEEPFAKES. There’s an interesting story just breaking today in the governor’s race, where a fake news site was created in order to advance a hit piece on Moore Capito. This kind of “deepfake” media is becoming more and more prevalent in politics these days, and promises to be a real threat come in the presidential election. We will be diving into this state story in the coming week to see who’s behind it, how they do it, and why. 

That’s the view from the back pew, where it’s our privilege to serve you…with real news. May God bless you.

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