Reporter’s Notebook: Calm before the legislative storm
On Wednesday, lawmakers, staffers, lobbyists, reporters, and members of the public will descend upon Charleston to exchange germs for 60 days as the first session of the 84th Legislature begins.
It sounds like most expect this year’s legislative session to be calm. After last year’s teacher strike that happened for 14 days in the middle of the session, anything would seem calm by comparison.
Forgotten in that chaos however, is that lawmakers still managed to pass bills, including the budget bill, within the 60-day time frame. That’s the first time in my lifetime a legislature didn’t extend the session by several days to complete the budget. And they did this while being yelled at by thousands.
Judging from what some lawmakers told attendees of the West Virginia Press Association’s Legislative Lookahead on Friday, it sure seems to me that both parties will have more agreements than disagreements. About the only big fights I expect will be over creating an intermediate appellate court, legalization of recreational marijuana, and K-12 education reform.
Of course, it’s easy to agree when the money is good. The state has seen good tax revenue numbers, and I expect that Gov. Jim Justice’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2020 will continue to have positive revenue projections.
Some have questioned whether the money is there for everything the governor and legislature want to do. While the tax revenue numbers sound good, half of all surpluses have to be deposited in the state’s Rainy Day Fund. If revenue projections stay good for the next couple of years combined with continued efforts to shrink down government, that could buy lawmakers some time. But even officials with the state Department of Revenue worry that once the construction workers building the roads and the pipelines return home, we’re going to see that tax revenue dry right up.
An alternative funding source house Democrats plan to push is legalizing recreational marijuana. Mind you, we still haven’t passed the legislative fixes to make our new medical marijuana program work, especially regarding what to do with the money generated since banks won’t touch those funds. But house Democrats want to at least debate the issue.
The left-of-center West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy said in a 2016 report that if recreational weed was taxed at 25 percent of the wholesale price, it could generate $45 million annually. No doubt it would be a good revenue generator, plus growth in downstream businesses catering to the new industry. It would also encourage more agriculture.
The question is what does the public think about marijuana legalization. Nationally, Gallup reports that 66 percent of Americans are on board with recreational marijuana, the third year in a row that support has increased in Gallup’s polling. But West Virginia is far more socially conservative, plus the views of citizens could be colored by what we’ve seen in our drug epidemics over the last few years.
I have no issues with medical or recreational marijuana, though I’m inclined to wait and see how medical marijuana works in this state before jumping into full-on legalization. Either way, expect some good debates on the subject.
Republicans around the state got a curious email Friday from state Republican Executive Committee Chairwoman Melody Potter announcing a special campaign announcement from Gov. Justice for later this morning in White Sulphur Springs.
The letter isn’t sitting too well with some Republicans. For one thing, with legislative interim meetings starting today and the session — and the governor’s State of the State speech — beginning Wednesday, the timing is just terrible. That shouldn’t surprise too many, as the governor’s timing has consistently been bad.
The other issue is the state Republican Party used their logo, the signature of its chairwoman, and their email to promote a campaign event by a guy who will have to run in the 2020 Republican primary in May. Despite the usual legal disclaimers, it smacks of an early endorsement.
Justice and associates have been wooing the state Republican Party for the last few months.
Both Justice and First Lady Cathy Justice donated $1,000 each to the party in June, and de facto chief of staff Bray Cary donated $1,000 in October. Still, some Republican leaders regard Justice — who won election to governor as a Democrat — with suspicion.
Justice should not expect 2020 to be a walk for him. He is going to have to work to convince Republican voters to support him. He will particularly have trouble in the northern half of the state. He will be challenged, as he should be. He should have to earn the votes of Republicans and not expect unconditional support because he saw the light and put an “R” by his name.