By Lawrence Messina
Republicans in West Virginia’s House of Delegates don’t believe their increased numbers amounted to much this session, but they may be selling themselves short.
After the 2012 election brought them within five seats of capturing a majority, GOP delegates kicked off the session in February by heralding an agenda they touted as focused on creating jobs.
But disappointment replaced that enthusiasm on Thursday, following the deadline for House bills to pass to the Senate. Blasting the session as beset by blown opportunities and misplaced priorities, Republicans announced that none of their agenda proposals had crossed over.
“We’ve not seen the bold initiatives and the willingness to work toward true reforms in West Virginia that we need to see,” House Minority Leader Tim Armstead said at a Capitol press conference featuring most of his GOP colleagues.
The Kanawha County Republican blamed the outcome largely on the majority’s leadership. While just one or two seats separate the parties in most of the House’s committees, which bills they consider remains the choice of their Democratic chairs.
“Let’s be clear. We have 46 members. Until we get to 51, we do not set the agenda for the committees,” Armstead said during the press conference. “When a chair of a committee sets that agenda, these bills are not getting on the agenda. They are not getting discussed.”
To House Majority Leader Brent Boggs, the press conference offered more examples of what he called a glass-half-empty attitude among Republican delegates. The Braxton County Democrat cited last month’s passage of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s education measure. Praising that bill’s provisions and its goal of improving public schools, he recounted how several Republicans criticized the bill while announcing they would vote for it.
“Every time we pass a bill here, we always use it as a building block for the future,” Boggs said Friday. “I think we need to talk about and encourage the people we represent about how we’re taking these positive steps.”
Boggs also said he’s met with Armstead throughout the session, in an effort to find common ground around the session’s bigger issues. Boggs questioned whether other Republican delegates have tried that approach.
“I’m not really sure who they’re going to. They certainly haven’t come to me, many of them,” Boggs said. “It’s important on the committee level that they sit down, cooperatively, with the chairs.”
The failed GOP agenda proposals highlighted at the press conference included a long-sought bid to require drug tests for adults who apply for or receive Temporary Assistance For Needy Families benefits. Its demise reflected some of the partisan tensions in the House this session. Republicans tried to force the measure from the Judiciary Committee, where it had idled. A party-line, 52-46 vote narrowly blocked that from being considered.
The parties also clashed after the defeat of GOP attempts to amend the Democratic governor’s education bill. Republican Delegates Eric Householder of Berkeley County, Cindy Frich of Monongalia County and Joshua Nelson of Boone County objected when Majority Leader Mike Caputo of Marion County sought to have their remarks during the floor debate printed in the House Journal. And House Minority Leader Daryl Cowles of Morgan County snubbed Caputo by refusing to field a question from the majority leader, something typically agreed to as a courtesy.
But the close margins in House committees have at times helped the GOP amend or even defeat measures they oppose. Just hours after their press conference, Republicans on the House roads committee derailed a proposed study of highway funding alternatives through a 12-12 tie vote. Party-line votes later revived and advanced the measure, however.
“I believe we have seen some bills not brought to the floor because of the numbers, and some other bills that have been brought to the floor because of those numbers,” Armstead said.
The House GOP may have influenced the session in other ways as well. Several proposals on their wish list have been borrowed by Democrats this session. Tomblin, for instance, included in his agenda a proposal allowing economic impact statements to accompany pending legislation. GOP delegates have long sought such a measure. The governor’s version unanimously passed the Senate late last month and awaits House Judiciary review.
“To the extent that good policy is the result of our session, or good policy is the result of the election, I personally don’t care who gets credit,” said Delegate Patrick Lane, a Kanawha County Republican. “If it’s a good idea, I think it’s a good idea. ... I think it’s a good (byproduct) because the policy is moving regardless of whose name is attached to it. That’s the most important thing.”