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Session at halfway point

The halfway point of the 60-day 2021 legislative session is Thursday and things continue to clip along at a brisk pace here.

I’ve been involved with the Legislature, either covering it as a reporter or working it as a staff member, for 11 years now, yet I always learn new things.

For example, last week the Democratic members of the House Government Organization Committee tried to get the House of Delegates to adopt a minority committee report for a House concurrent resolution.

You see, bills are introduced in either the House or Senate. While they can be taken up by each body and read on three separate days (or even suspend those constitutional rules to immediately take up a bill), 99 percent of the time the bill is referred to a committee.

Both bodies have dozens of committees, but the major ones are Finance, Judiciary, Government Organization, Education and Health and Human Resources. Nearly all bills will flow to at least one of these committees.

Last Tuesday, the House Government Organization recommended the House adopt House Concurrent Resolution 9 urging Congress to call a convention of states to create term limits for members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

You obviously know what a bill is, especially if you have the classic Schoolhouse Rock song in your head. But resolutions are a different matter. There are three kinds of resolutions in the Legislature and they all have different purposes.

A joint resolution requires a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate and is the vehicle used for putting constitutional amendments on the ballot. The House adopted HJR 2 last week, which would amend the state Constitution to clarify the courts can’t interfere with impeachment proceedings initiated by the Legislature. It still needs a two-thirds vote (23 members) in the Senate before being placed on a ballot in 2022 for voters to approve.

Regular resolutions are used by the House and Senate to express opinions of the body, urge action or usually just to honor someone or a group or organization. They don’t require a vote of the other body. Concurrent resolutions are similar, except they do require votes in both the House and the Senate. But joint, regular or concurrent resolutions have force of law.

That’s what makes the drama last week around HCR 9 interesting. The Legislature has flirted with the Article V convention nonsense for years. In short, in Article V of the U.S. Constitution, you have two ways of amending the Constitution: Congress proposes constitutional amendments by two-thirds vote of both bodies and 38 states ratify the amendment; or 34 states agree to call a convention to consider constitutional amendments (the amendments would still need to be ratified by 38 states).

Legislation introduced during this session would get West Virginia to join other states that have called for Article V conventions for various topics, usually for requiring a federal balanced budget, limit presidential executive orders or regulations and congressional term limits. Opponents are concerned an Article V convention, even if you try to limit it to a certain topic, could potentially rewrite the Constitution.

I pass no judgment of whether an Article V convention is good or bad. But HCR 9 is mostly harmless in and of itself, though I can understand if opponents don’t want to give the impression they support it.

So, the minority members of the committee attempted to get the House to approve their minority report. I had never seen this done before, but House Rule 88 allows the minority of any committee to issue a report about a bill or resolution and have the report printed in the House Journal. If they can present the report before the main committee reports, the House can vote to either accept the committee’s report or the minority’s report.

That’s what minority members of the House Government Organization Committee tried to do last Wednesday, a vote that failed 22-77. According to Del. Evan Hansen, the reason for the minority report was due to a Republican member of the committee calling the question on the amendment before members had a chance to debate it.

Hansen, during debate on his minority report motion, also said he requested a public hearing on HCR 9 and received no reply from House Government Organization Committee Chairman Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh. In response, Steele said he never saw the email from Hansen making the request for the public hearing, which Hansen wanted to use to get a letter from a constitutional law expert from Georgetown University placed in the public record since he didn’t get to do so during debate on the HCR.

Steele did agree to hold a public hearing on HCR 9, even though he said at that point they didn’t have to. He said the debate on the resolution last Tuesday went on for a while and testimony was heard from proponents and opponents alike.

The fact we are having this kind of debate on day 22 (today is day 27) this early in the session gives me bad omens for what the rest of the session will look like.

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