We hope you had a great weekend! Our weekend was packed full with committee meetings and lobbying visits, as the Senate decided to convene. This is why our “weekend” update is coming to you at the beginning of the week; we didn’t forget about you! Read on for a full update on last week’s happenings and a look ahead at this week’s.
by: Gary Zuckett
Last Monday was Groundhog Day and the furry beast in Punxsutawney predicted an early spring; however, he may have an early demise if he wanders south into our state – SB 334 has already passed the Senate and is now in the House. It would reclassify “woodchuck as a game animal.” I don’t think they’re talking about Monopoly.
Bill Murry’s ‘Groundhog Day’ movie flashed before me all week as the battle over the two anti-labor bills was fought over and over in first one committee then the other, on the floor of the Senate, then the House. Day after day, the same tired old platitudes were being thrown at the workers assembled to protect their union jobs. Finally, in a fit of frankness, one of the lawmakers admitted their real reason, thatwages of WV workers were too high. So there you have it. The path to prosperity in our state evidently starts with us collecting smaller paychecks. Go figure!
As in the movie, it all came to a head on one fateful day, Thursday, when “Right to Work” (for less) came up for a final vote in the House, and, at the exact same time, the bill killing the prevailing wage was up for passage in the Senate. Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction.
We’re now close to the mid-way mark of the session and many legislators are grousing about the lack of progress on critical issues facing the state while the bills moving mostly deal with ideological, social, and political issues.
The reason for the rush to pass these (and other bills on leadership’s bucket list) so soon in the session is tactical. Having the votes to over-ride any vetoes by the governor, they must send these bills to him in time to do so before the end of the session.
Speaking of other bills, there is a long list of bad-boy bills that are now in the works: charter schools & repeal of the state’s Common Core standards has one of the state Board of Education members throwing in the towel. Woman’s reproductive rights are under attack from over a dozen bills now introduced. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) is on its way toward passage in the House, and Tuesday the 9th is Fairness WV’s Lobby Day when LGBTQ supporters will rally at the capitol to oppose; see Ciera’s article below for details on both.
Clean water will be the subject of another rally and press conference at the capital tomorrow – Tuesday 9th. WV Rivers Coalition, WV CAG, and 34 other groups are sending a solidarity letter to residents of Flint, Michigan and linking the fight for clean water to current attacks at the WV legislature. Come join us if you can in the lower rotunda at 2PM!
Even if you can’t join us at the capitol, you can join in the support of our fight to clean up our environment, protect our social and civil rights, and keep up the pressure on the lawmakers to do right by us citizens. Make some calls to your legislators. E-mails are easier but calls are given much more weight by elected officials.
Besides showing up or calling in, please take a minute and become a member of WV Citizen Action. Your contributions and support are critical to the work we do for a better West Virginia!
Take Action for Safe Drinking Water!
by: Ciera Pennington
Support stronger protections for your drinking water to prevent another water crisis like the one in Charleston January 2014? Here are a few easy actions you can take to protect your drinking water:
- Join a variety of citizen groups united for water justice at a press conference in the lower rotunda of the WV State Capitol this Tuesday, February 9th at 2 pm!We’ll be demanding government accountability for protection of safe drinking water, and thirty-six local groups will be releasing a solidarity letter from West Virginians to the citizens of Flint, Michigan.
- Sign the petition asking the WV Public Service Commission (PSC) to continue with the general investigation and not let WV American Water off the hook for their chemical spill response.
- Soon, the Aboveground Storage Tank Act (HB 4104) and revisions to water quality standards (HB 4103) are expected to be voted on by the full House of Delegates. Contact your Delegate and tell them to protect our water!
- Sign-up today with West Virginia Rivers Coalition, the leaders in the fight for clean water, for e-updates to track the most important policy issues affecting your water.
SB 508 Takes Away Citizens’ Right to Sue Over Drilling Impacts
by: Julie Archer
Earlier this week, seven Senators introduced SB 508, which would take away citizens’ ability to bring “nuisance” suits against against oil and gas drillers. As we reported in our Summer 2015 newsletter, a number of these cases have been filed in Doddridge, Harrison, Marion, Pleasants, Ritchie and Kanawha Counties against companies drilling and operating wells to the Marcellus and other shale formations.
A “nuisance” case is somewhat different from a damage, “trespass,” or other case that would be brought by the owner of the surface where a well pad is located. A nuisance case is often brought by the owner of the surface that adjoins or is near a tract where a well pad is located. These suits by neighboring surface owners are usually brought because of the noise, dust or other air pollution, truck traffic, etc. related to the drilling, which has interfered with the neighbors’ use and enjoyment of their land.
SB 508 undermines the law hundreds of West Virginians have used to file suitagainst the oil and gas companies whose activities have negatively affected their quality and way of life, making it virtually impossible for other affected residents to bring similar suits in the future. Bringing this type of legal action is the only recourse many people have. We can’t let the Legislature take this right away.
Need some inspiration? Here’s a letter one SORO member sent to her legislators:
It is clear some of the state legislators want to reduce the cost of extraction by transferring damage done by gas drillers and strip miners to the rural folks living in and near these sacrifice zones. Not everyone has that option, or the desire, ability and funds to move to an unaffected area. Can you imagine working your entire life, settling down in your home to finally retire, only to have drillers show up and build a well pad next door?
Residents of our state deserve protection from outside multimillion dollar corporations. What SB 508 does is to revise the definition of a nuisance suit almost out of existence. This bill favors corporations over middle class and poor West Virginia citizens. Please vote NO on SB 508.
Nancy B., Upshur Co.
Thank your for taking action!
Right to Discriminate
by: Ciera Pennington
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) – HB 4012 – has made its way through committee and is likely to appear on the House agenda for its first reading this week. This bill, which is similar to the one passed in Indiana, would allow individuals to not abide by local or state policies, laws, or actions that they claim violate their religious beliefs. Opponents of the bill, thus, fear the bill legalizing discrimination, especially against the LGBTQ community.
Regardless of what it may or may not do for either side, I keep coming back to the same question as I listen to committee hearings, participate in public hearings, and read articles and opinion editorials – is a RFRA needed in WV to protect our religious citizens? As an agnostic individual who practices no religion, I am aware I may not always see injustices against those who do practice.
Last Wednesday, as I listened to the House Judiciary Committee discuss HB 4012, I finally got some answers. It was stated that there has never been a case brought to court in WV from someone who felt their religious freedom had been violated. Additionally, I learned, not only does the First Amendment guarantee the right to religion, but we have a federal RFRA and two Supreme Court cases – Sherbert v. Verner and Wisconsin v. Yoder – that set precedents for protecting religious freedom all across our country. Why then is a RFRA needed in WV?
As someone who identifies as bisexual, I too fear this bill. It appears that the only reason the RFRA is needed in WV is to broaden the scope of the federal RFRA and two before-mentioned Supreme Court cases, thus allowing discrimination against LGBTQ individuals (and probably some other minorities). In a state that has no protections for me and my fellow LGBTQ mountaineers, I wonder why we aren’t a priority and what may come as a result.
This isn’t the only reason I fear the RFRA, though. Our state lags behind the majority of the country AND we are facing a major budget deficit; yet, we are focusing on trivial matters rather than some of our most pressing issues. As a millennial watching as my classmates graduate college and move out-of-state, I worry more and more that a RFRA and other unnecessary focuses will continue to push our youth and talent out the doors. As my friend, Dillon Muhly-Alexander recently stated, “If we, as a state, cannot retain our best, brightest and boldest, we have failed ourselves.” I hope our state legislators will work harder to ensure our success!
Want to stand in solidarity with your LGBTQ neighbors, friends, and fellow mountaineers to fight against RFRA and demand ALL mountaineers be treated equally? Come to the Capitol this Tuesday for Fairness WV’s Lobby Day!
Can’t make it? Call your Delegates and leave them this message:
“Please oppose House Bill 4012 because it encourages discrimination, will hurt our economy, and will clog up our court system with unnecessary lawsuits!”
Senate to Consider Raising Campaign Contribution Limits
by: Julie Archer
On Monday, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are expected to take up SB 408, which would raise campaign contributions limits to candidates and political action committees (PACs) to the current federal limit of $2,700 per election (more than double West Virginia’s current limit of $1,000). The bill would also allow political party committees to make coordinated expenditures of up to $20,000 “in connection with the general election campaign of candidates for statewide office, the Legislature, or any county office. Although we understand the coordination provisions may be dropped in favor of a bill that simply increases contribution limits.
While modest compared to last year’s proposal to eliminate all contribution limits and allow direct corporate contributions to candidates, SB 408 is problematic for a number of reasons. First, in addition to the provisions mentioned above, the bill requires the Secretary of State to establish and maintain a searchable, online database of contribution and expenditure data submitted by candidates and political committees. Although this is something we support, it’s an unfair burden to place on the Secretary of State’s office unless candidates are also required to file their disclosure reports online or by some other electronic means that can easily be imported into the database. A bill passed by the House, HB 2588, would remedy the need for an electronic reporting mandate and mechanism.
Second, and more importantly, increasing contribution limits is taking us in the wrong direction. There’s too much money in our elections already being contributed by too few people. Raising the amount that contributors can give further amplifies the influence and voices of large donors, while further drowning out those of small donors and those who can’t afford to contribute to political campaigns.
Finally, the bill completely ignores the biggest problem with money in politics — secret money. Unfortunately, current disclosure laws in West Virginia allow contributors to hide their identity while influencing our elections.
Consideration of SB 408 comes as allied Senators and Delegates are preparing to introduce a bill that would require any entity that spends more than $1,000 in a calendar year to disclose its donors to the Secretary of State’s office. The bill would also close the “covered transfers” loophole, which allows large donors to contribute anonymously to secret money groups.
Please contact members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and your legislators and tell them to vote “No” on SB 408. Allowing more money into our elections without increasing disclosure is self-serving and keeps West Virginians in the dark about who is trying to influence their votes.
As West Virginians, we stand up for what we believe in. It’s time we made the millionaires and corporations writing six-figure checks to influence our elections to do the same.
- The West Virginia House Finance Committee faces tough decisions on how to balance West Virginia’s budget this year. Ask them to please remember our working families who are already paying more than their fair share by creating a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Twenty-six other states and the District of Columbia have already created and enacted this pro-work tax credit for their working families who earn low wages; we should do the same!