By RYAN QUINN
The West Virginia Senate passed Monday a taxpayer-funded private education vouchers bill after the Senate Democrats, in the minority, didn't propose any amendments and joined their Republican colleagues to allow the bill to pass a day early.
The 18-15 final Senate vote on the bill mirrored the one on the separate, sweeping education overhaul bill (Senate Bill 1039, the "Student Success Act"), which the Senate also passed Monday.
All Democrats present voted no, and Sens. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, and Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, joined the Democrats. Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, was the only senator absent.
In the previous vote Monday to waive a state constitutional rule requiring bills to officially be read on three separate days in a legislative session, only Sens. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, and John Unger, D-Berkeley, voted no.
These vouchers, called education savings accounts, would give parents taxpayer money to send their children to private schools, including religious schools, or home-school them or otherwise provide them with a private education. A voucher would provide about $3,800 per student per year, according to the state Department of Education.
Both men who voted against the rule waiver are pastors.
This rule waiver, which allowed for passage Monday instead of Tuesday, required a four-fifths vote among senators to be successful. The waiver and final vote Monday came despite senators apparently not receiving information beforehand on the cost of the legislation.
Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, speaking on the Senate floor Monday, provided estimates that the state Treasurer's Office produced.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said he hadn't heard the figures beforehand, saying, "I took it in on the floor as she was giving it."
The Treasurer's Office projected the cost to be about $8 million annually for 2,000 vouchers and $15 million for 4,000 vouchers, the amount expected "once the program reaches maturity." That doesn't include the office's estimated annual expenses of about $1 million for program-related costs beyond just providing the voucher money.
Diana Stout, general counsel for the Treasurer's Office, said Senate Education Committee counsel Hank Hager requested the estimate Wednesday, and she provided it Friday, the day before the Senate reconvened its special legislative session on education. At one point, she used the term "guesstimate" to describe the figures.
"I'm not sure where else we would go to find information on these, other than the individual states," that have education savings account programs, Stout said.
"Honestly, the programs are so diverse in other states that it's difficult to compare what our draft legislation says versus their code," she said. "There are huge differences."
Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said most Democrats agreed to vote to waive the three separate days of readings rule for two reasons.
"First reason was we preached all along and advocated that, if they broke the bills down into single bills, we would vote them up or down," Prezioso said.
While the vouchers were in Senate Republicans' last "omnibus" education bill (Senate Bill 451), which failed during the regular legislative session, Senate Republicans separated vouchers from their new Student Success Act.
Prezioso said the second reason was that another day in special session would waste money.
He said Democrats didn't propose amendments "because there was not much hope we were going to get any of our amendments in. The second thing is, the bill is dead on arrival over in the House."
The House of Delegates is set to convene for the special session on June 17.