This year’s regular session of the West Virginia Legislature will be unlike most others for at least two reasons. One is that it will have the first Republican supermajority in both houses in the lifetimes of most voters. The second is the series of steps the legislative leadership is implementing to prevent the transmission of the COVID-19 virus while people converge on the Capitol.
As detailed by HD Media’s Phil Kabler in the Charleston Gazette-Mail on recently, the session will not nearly be as open and accessible to the public as it has been in years past. Access to legislators by lobbyists and reporters has been reduced. Even more troubling, on Jan. 13 the House of Delegates changed the rules for public hearings on bills, pushing them back to as late as immediately prior to passage votes on the legislation. Committee hearings don’t need to be in person; they can be done by teleconferencing.
Those changes along with others don’t bode well for public oversight of the legislative process or public input into it.
The right to petition the government for a redress of grievances is embedded in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It is why we have open meetings laws, which require deliberations and votes of public bodies to be done in public view, with very few exceptions. Yes, those exceptions are abused, but meetings now are more open than they were before such laws were enacted. The public’s business must be done in public and in a way in which the public can provide advice and consent before votes are taken.
Things have changed since the 2019 legislative session ended. Schools are open again with precautions to hinder the spread of COVID-19 and, presumably, other airborne diseases. People are eating in restaurants again. Life is slowly returning to normal.
The legislative leadership is wise to take steps to prevent the session from becoming a 60-day superspreader event. However, its members were elected knowing they were going into a session before a vaccine could bring about herd immunity. They were elected with, their voters assume, the understanding an international pandemic does not suspend the Bill of Rights and legislators’ accountability to their constituents.
There is still time for the leadership to review these steps and reconsider whether they are in the public’s interest. When in doubt, openness and access should rule. What’s good for public schools is good for the Legislature.