by Gary Zuckett
Thursday was the halfway point in this session and we are fast approaching the last day to introduce bills in the Senate (Monday, February 23) and House (Tuesday, February 24). So far 1,243 bills have been introduced. The week started with a great press conference on protecting our water with speakers from WV Environmental Council member groups, the WV Council of Churches, and Charleston NAACP – all calling for keeping our drinking water clean and safe, and opposing legislation to roll back protections. Our water warrior, Karan Ireland, moderated the event and gave a strong personal testimony to kick it off.
We watched a bit of real committee drama this week when Senate Judiciary took up SB 340, a voter ID bill sponsored by Chairman Trump. The room was packed with red shirted AARP members and County Clerks in town for their Association of Counties meeting. An hour of intense discussion ensued with testimony from both groups that this bill was “a solution looking for a problem” and general agreement from presenters that there was not a voter fraud problem here; rather, we do have an election fraud problem! Following the discussion, Senator Snyder, the most vocal opponent, moved to “table” the SB 340 and called for “yeas and nays” where every member individually calls out their vote. Every Senator present voted to table the bill. This procedure keeps it off the agenda unless a committee member moves to bring it back and the majority agrees. We hope this move puts the kibosh on any further attempts to suppress voting by requiring voters to show picture IDs. Our turnout here is already dismal.
United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts penned an op-ed this week that has caught the essence of this new day in West Virginia lawmaking. In it he suggests that rolling back safety regulations (SB 357, the so-called “Creating Coal Jobs and Safety Act”) will not be enough to make WV coal competitive again, that more will be needed. “Let’s bring back the company store, so the companies can take back the wages they pay to the miners. Maybe the companies can once again charge the miners for the tools and equipment they use… And we can bring back the company town, so the miners can pay rent to the company for the privilege of living in a forced labor camp while working at a more unsafe mine.” We hope he’s not giving them any ideas.
This treatment is not just for miners. Our civil justice system is also under attack (see below). Water and other environmental protections are being gutted. Women’s reproductive choice is under assault. Even clean indoor air regulations are getting “reformed” backwards and politicized by being taken away from local Health Departments and given to County Commissions (see SB 109 and HB 2208 Threaten Clean Indoor Air Protections). It seems as though Pandora’s box has been opened and all manner of banshees are flying out.
Norm, our former director, suggested an appropriate quote for this issue would be this small portion of C.S. Lewis’s preface to the 1961 re-edition The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast.
“I like bats much better than bureaucrats. I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of ‘Admin.’ The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.” Not quite the same C.S. Lewis of the Tales of Narnia book series.
“Tort reform” is not a new pastry recipe. It’s corporate lingo for limiting the damages that citizens can collect when they’ve experienced some kind of harm or injustice from their hospital, nursing home, car crash, employer, or other business dealings. It is a campaign led by the insurance industry so they can keep more of their collected premiums by limiting the payout to injured citizens. Lots of “horror stories” are repeated over and over to convince our lawmakers (and us) that West Virginia is a “judicial hellhole” with jackpot juries handing down outrageous verdicts to the undeserving and their legal counsel. This is poppycock – a made-up crisis to provide for a pre-packaged remedy – i.e. a lockdown on the amounts that juries can to award those who are injured, to the point where often lawyers can’t afford to represent Joe and Jane citizen when really injured because there is no possibility to collect enough in damages to cover their costs. The insurance industry has even funded their own AstroTurf group to make it look like citizens are clamoring for more “tort reform.” It’s called WV Citizen’s Against Lawsuit Abuse (WV-CALA) and it publishes its own weekly newspaper here and is currently spending a couple of hundred thousand dollars in radio and TV ads cheerleading the onslaught of “tort reform” measures at the Capitol. Yeah, right, show me a real West Virginia “grassroots” group that has that kind of media money?
Scores of bills moving though the new legislature fit this description. However, this issue is convoluted and gets into lots of legal lingo, but we’ll try to outline a few bills here without getting too far into the weeds.
Deliberate Intent – HB 2011 – Reforms workers compensation to make it harder for injured workers to sue their employers when injury is caused by willful and deliberate violation of workplace safety standards. The House passed this and it is now in Senate Judiciary. This one should be fondly named after Don Blankenship…
Arbitration Act – SB 37 – Extends mandatory arbitration for many consumer contracts and other transactions such as car purchases and credit cards so you can’t have your day in court with them but have to use their hand-picked “arbitrators” as your judge and may have to travel out of state to have a hearing.
Nursing Home Protection Bill – SB 6 – Extends current medical malpractice damage award caps to the administrators of nursing homes so that when they cut staffing down to the point when granny dies from starvation in her nursing home bed (this really happened) the culprits are not slapped with “excessive” damages.
Abolishing Joint & Several Liabilities – HB 2002 – has passed both Houses and is in conference committee. It replaces the current liability statute that permits juries to award full damages from any party deemed to be at fault for an injury, with one that limits damages to the percentage of fault. This may seem fairer on the surface – unless you are the damaged party that cannot be fully compensated by the party mostly at fault – such as an underinsured driver. More victims will go without by this change and more corporate “deep pockets” will get off the hook.
As said, “tort teform” is a complicated subject but has real-world implications when you need your day in court. Beware of AstroTurf groups calling for an end to “lawsuit abuse”!
Take another look at the two big days that citizens are gathering at the Capitol. I know the weather is lousy and most of you live far away. But those who can make it to the Capitol on Monday or Wednesday will help show lawmakers that it’s not just us few die-hard progressive lobbyists they see every day that care about clean water and air (and other people-friendly laws).
The public hearing on clean water Monday morning and labor/citizen rally at noon should make legislators take notice. The WV Environmental Council’s E-Day, which includes a rally for Clean Water at noon on Wednesday, also gives folks time to lobby their hometown lawmakers. It really makes an impression on them when constituents take the time to show up and communicate. The WVEC Awards Dinner at the Woman’s Club that evening will be a great place to see old friends and make new ones.
If You Can’t Come to Charleston…
Please consider sending in your support by clicking the “Donate” button at the top of this update or via snail mail to WV-CAG, 1500 Dixie Street, Charleston, WV 25311. We have a great, four-person lobby team this year and two wonderful interns, and it takes the other kind of Green Power to keep this effort going. Thanks to all who have renewed their member support and especially to those who have included a little extra!
by Emmett Pepper
At Energy Efficient West Virginia’s (EEWV) policy summit in December, the top priority was to pass a bill to establish what are called Local Energy Efficiency Partnerships (LEEPs). A bill was first introduced by Delegate Barbara Fleischauer (D, Monongalia) last year. The LEEP bill will empower local governments to establish a funding mechanism for making local commercial buildings more efficient. Thirty states currently have a version of this authority.
Here’s how it works: if a local government (county/town/city) has a LEEP program, a local commercial building owner can apply to get funding to make their building more energy efficient. In order to apply, the building owner will need to get an investment-grade energy audit showing what upgrades will pay for themselves through energy savings. The building owner will also need to show other financial assurances and an application fee. The local government will take the application and market bonds backed by the energy savings described in the audit. When the bonds are sold, the building owner will get the money to make the upgrades, make the upgrades, and pay back the bonds on the building’s tax ticket at a rate that is less than the amount saved on the energy bills.
EEWV has been working closely with the WVU School of Law to make improvements to last year’s LEEP bill, after receiving feedback that there were some needed changes. The new and improved bill has sponsors and we will be seeking co-sponsors this week. Thank you to Del. Fleischauer and Senator Chris Walters (R, Putnam) for introducing the LEEP bill! Stay posted for the bill numbers once they are available.
Come Out Wearing Blue in Support of HB 2289
by Jessica Steinrueck
As you are probably well aware of, one of our big fights this legislative session is to try to protect the water of West Virginia. Unfortunately, the majority of this fight is spent trying to keep current protections in place, but we are also trying to move forward. One of these forward moving bills for water that we are currently fighting to pass is House Bill 2289.
House Bill 2289 would give “Category A” status to the Kanawha River, allowing the river to be a potential secondary water source in case of another water crisis. “Category A” is a human health use category of water, meaning that all water in this category can be used for drinking water. “Category A” covers most of the streams and rivers of West Virginia with only a few exceptions, a stretch of the Kanawha River being one of them.
If this bill passes, it will prevent and limit future toxins from going into the Kanawha River. The D.E.P. has said that the water seems to already be meeting the “Category A” standards, meaning that this bill would have minimal impact to current industry. Water must already be classified as “Category A” in order to be considered as a drinking water source, so although the water is already meeting standards, the fact that it is not designated “Category A” makes it unsuitable for drinking water use. If another water crisis happens and this bill has not passed, we will have nowhere to turn for clean water. again.
There will be a public hearing on the bill this upcoming Monday the 16th. It will start at 8:30am in the House Chambers and we hope to see you there. Everyone is able to speak, and the more the better! Coming out just to show your support is also greatly needed. We hope to fill the room with a sea of people wearing blue, and hope that you will come or send five friends in your place. If you plan on speaking, come to the House Chamber 10 minutes early and sign up to speak on the page that says “in Support of HB 2289”. Prepare to only have about 1-2 minutes to speak.
*Protect our water supplies for current and future drinking water use.
*Support HB 2289 to remove the Category A exemption for the Kanawha River.
*Reject amendments to weaken Category A protections statewide.
Calls and e-mails are also needed. Contact information for House Judiciary committee members is here. Contact information for Senate Natural Resources Committee members is here. Additional talking points can be found here.
Thank you to Angie Rosser and the West Virginia Rivers Coalition for being a great resource.
Monday February 16 at 8:30 am “Category A” Public Hearing
in the House Chambers, we hope to see you there. Everyone is able to speak, and the more the better! Coming out just to show your support is also greatly needed. We hope to fill the room with a sea of people wearing blue. For more information click here
Monday February 16 at 12:00pm rally for working West Virginians
Also on Monday, Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler is urging all West Virginians to come to the Capitol on President’s Day, Monday, February 16, for a rally at noon on the south side steps (on the Kanawha River side) of the Capitol. Come show your support for West Virginia’s working men and women and social justice issues. For more information click here
Wednesday Feb 18 from 10am to 3pm E-Day at the Capitol
Join West Virginia Citizen Action Group and West Virginia Environmental Council as well as many other groups & citizens as we lobby for a better West Virginia, clean water, air and health. Visit displays on a variety of issues, lobby, and join us for a rally at noon in the Lower Rotunda. We will help guide you to committee meetings, representatives.