Some Good News from the Capitol

From Lida Shepherd at the American Friends Service Committee, WV Economic Justice Project

[Editor’s Note: This update was sent Feb. 27 prior to Crossover Day, and has been updated to reflect subsequent action on bills.

You won’t believe it but I have good news from the State Capitol. I know you’re probably thinking, FAKE NEWS! But Kenny [Matthews] and Joanna [Vance] and our incredible coalition partners took a hard won victory lap [last Monday], after the House Judiciary Committee moved Senate Bill 154 to a study resolution. This bill would have tripled criminal penalties for drug offenses and effectively turned 2nd offense of simple possession into a felony. Yikes!


A word on victory…

In this brutal legislative session, victory doesn’t quite look the way it has in years past.  Reducing the harm of any given bill through the committee and amendment process is not easy — and is a victory. Delaying action on a horrible bill can be the best news we get all day — and is a victory.  And being able to stop (or in legislative parlance “kill”) a terrible bill by getting it turned into a study resolution — is a huge victory. Getting a good bill passed might as well be a unicorn. 

Many of you have heard the state legislature described as the “bad idea factory” — which continues to be favorite among weary advocates. A metaphor I would add this year is that it’s been like drinking water through a fire hose. And the water is poisonous.

[Even though we’ve made it past Crossover Day,] there are a lot of poisonous bills very much alive. Here are some real lowlights with another highlight. Have to read to the end for another glimmer of good news.  

And definitely read on if you’re looking for ways to challenge what the legislature is trying to do to laid off workers, elementary school students, and seniors on SNAP.


Kicking workers while they’re down

Even in the midst of recent announcements of huge layoffs at Cleveland Cliffs and Allegheny Wood, impacting some 1,500 workers and their families, the Senate [had] the gall to move legislation that will lower the time limit and cap weekly payments for laid off workers.  

As the dude in The Big Lebowski would say, “this aggression will not stand man.”  Voice your opposition to these cuts to unemployment and contact your legislator here.


Pouring gasoline on a burning building

Moving onto another poisonous bill.  Folks in West Virginia know that regional jails continue to be overcrowded and understaffed – and people are dying in them.  People like Quantez Burks who was killed at Southern Regional Jail while he was incarcerated pretrial in 2022.  A terrible bill that would make the crisis worse and increase pretrial incarceration passed the Senate.

The bill would prohibit magistrates from issuing personal recognizance bonds for people charged with felonies, and be a reversal of the gains we’ve made towards bail reform in West Virginia.  It would also not exactly comport with the U.S. Supreme Court opinion that pretrial liberty is a “fundamental right” either. [More good news! Fortunately, the House Judiciary Committee voted down a committee substitute for SB 725 on Friday.]


When you’re only tool is a hammer

Many kids in our state are struggling for all kinds of reasons — poverty, trauma, lack of access to mental health care, being in foster care, having a parent incarcerated — the list could go on.  And our teachers are unfairly tasked with managing a lot of struggling kids, while also trying to teach.  The 2017 teacher of the year said recently, “As schools, we don’t really have all the tools that we need… And so then, teachers become teacher, social worker, parent, you know, nutritionist, everything. And at some point, it will break you. Because you can’t be all of those things to 160 kids a day. That’s not possible.”

Instead of giving teachers the tools they need, the legislature is contemplating legislation that is mostly just a hammer.  The Senate passed SB 614 which among many harmful provisions would allow the removal of elementary age students from the classroom, prohibit them from riding the bus home, subject them to law enforcement interactions if their parents are unable to pick them up, and exclude them from school until a risk assessment is completed, which could take days to weeks.  The bill contains language that kids can be sent to “any behavioral intervention program the county has established” but provides no funding or resources. If you haven’t yet, please take a moment to contact your lawmaker here

Side bar on this travesty of a bill that is being promoted as a way to help teachers: every time a member of the legislature bemoans that that we don’t have enough money to make investments in our kids and our teachers, we must remind them that they voted last year to cut a stable state revenue source with their personal income tax cut. Collective amnesia must not be tolerated!


Taking food from seniors – not nice

Partners with the Food for All coalition who have been working against SB 562 could give a masterclass on victory as defined by reducing harm. Originally SB 562 was sweeping in how many people on SNAP would be subject to mandatory participation in SNAP’s Employment and Training program or otherwise be subject to time limits on SNAP.   After a lot of hard work by advocates, the version which passed the senate will subject “able bodied adults without dependents” between the ages of 53 and 59 to the E&T mandate and SNAP time limits.  Testimony given by DHHR indicates that this would impact about 8,000 people. 

So while it started out a hugely terrible bill, it’s still a punitive and paternalistic piece of legislation.  There is zero evidence anywhere that shows these kinds of mandates and time limits on access to food stamps help people into the workforce.  Mind you, we are talking about people ages 53-59 who might have all kinds of reasons why they can’t participate in the SNAP E&T program. Send a message here to protect SNAP benefits.


IDs for people coming out of prison

Last but not least, HB 5565 [passed] the House and if we get it through the Senate, it would be one of those unicorns (i.e. a good bill actually passing this legislature!). HB 5565  would require the Division of Motor Vehicles to issue state IDs to people prior to release from prison. 

Thanks for reading!

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