Legislative leaders still hiding, hurting workers
Governor Jim Justice has announced that all businesses in West Virginia can return to full capacity, yet the state Legislature continues to lock out the public, moving bills that weaken worker protections, eliminate liability for corporations that intentionally put employees in harm's way, and hand huge tax breaks to the rich – all behind closed doors.
"This legislative leadership hasn't made a single meaningful attempt to include members of the public in this legislative session, giving themselves an unprecedented opportunity to rapidly push through a succession of terrible bills," WV AFL-CIO President Josh Sword said.
"The governor has allowed state businesses to operate at 50 percent, 75 percent, and now 100 percent capacity, but this legislative leadership has never allowed even a small percentage of the interested public into their meeting rooms and offices, instead only permitting the privileged few who are granted 'appointments.' It's shameful."
During this 2021 regular legislative session, House and Senate galleries are largely empty, and there is no method for anyone to directly observe the proceedings.
The House of Delegates provides video streaming of the daily floor sessions, while the Senate has provided video streaming of floor sessions and committee meetings, which are archived on the Legislature's website.
Because of the lack of space in three of the four House committee rooms, all House committee meetings are now divided between the House chamber and the East Wing Government Organization Committee Room (215 E), which is large enough to allow social distancing.
The House leadership decided that because no video of committee meetings in 215 E has been made available, when committee meetings take place in the House chamber, that streaming would also be limited to just audio, despite the fact the chamber is fully equipped to stream video.
"We sent a letter to the legislative leadership expressing our concerns and informed them we have highly skilled, licensed electricians and communications technicians among our membership who would be happy to assist with the installation of needed equipment to allow for video streaming and online participation," Sword said. "They have not responded."
Requests for public hearings and testimony from members of the public directly affected by certain bills have been rejected by the House, while the Senate has never offered a public hearing option. In addition, committee agendas in both houses are often posted at the last minute, preventing those interested in providing input the chance to react.
WV AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Andy Walters noted that the House's only attempts at "public hearings" have been to offer online meetings, but to give those interested a one-hour window to sign up for them.
"While virtual hearings are certainly one option to help cut down on the number of people present at the Capitol, they are very limiting to start with," Walters said. "Why would you make it even more restrictive by only offering a one-hour time frame to sign up to participate? People who care about these issues often have jobs that may prevent them from signing up during that time window. Yet House leaders point to these 'public hearings' as proof they're seeking input from the public. It's disingenuous, to say the least."
The WV AFL-CIO continues to point out the countless pieces of legislation being considered that trample the rights of working families to the benefit of billion-dollar, out-of-state corporations.
"The bill that really stands out to me though, is the one that provides lawsuit immunity to corporations that endanger workers by unnecessarily exposing them to COVID," Sword said. "After months of praising the people who have never stopped working to ensure we all have health and senior care services, groceries, mail delivery, utilities, and the education and care of our children, the legislative leadership has made no attempt to help protect them or provide hazard compensation. In fact, they're trying their level best to do the opposite."