January 14, Charleston WV.

During the ceremonial Opening Day of the legislative session on Wednesday January 11th 2023, HNN reporters on the Senate floor noticed a flurry of whispered and urgent conversations among the Republican Senate caucus around 1:00 PM. As the swearing-in of Senate officers and formal opening remarks were gravelled into “a brief recess” by Senate President Craig Blair (to informally recognize guests in the galleries), one Senator quickly left the Senate floor through a ‘Senators Only’ door behind the podium. The Senate Minority Leader, Mike Woelfel (Cabell), one of only three Democrats remaining in the 34 member State Senate moved rapidly out of the Chambers within seconds of President Blair’s declaring a recess — while the other Senators remained in place to recognize visiting Opening Day guests. Why had Senate Minority Leader Mike Woelfel (D-Cabell) run for the doors? 

Within hours, HNN reporters felt they knew why Senator Woelfel had abruptly stepped out of the Senate Chamber. The Senate’s Republican majority leadership had decided to suspend normal West Virginia Senate rules — and immediately move a series of bills, apparently without discussion, regular committee hearings, normal public comment or the typical second and third readings. Many statewide news media sources reported this unprecedented Opening Day activity, with various levels of emphasis ranging from concern to alarm. 

“On the first day of the Session, with no warning, no agenda, and no public input the Senate suspended the Constitution to pass 23 bills, including a major overhaul of our largest state agency and a highly controversial bill that censors teachers and school administrators from discussing racism,” the West Virginia ACLU reported. MetroNews, the public radio online newspaper headline stated, “On Day One Senate passes bills on racism in classrooms, reorganizing health agency and PEIA payments” and similar headlines across the region surprised, and possibly confused, West Virginia political observers. 

A closer look reveals that the two major bills that were abruptly passed were bills that had passed the Senate in the previous 2022 session but had died late in the session because of lack of majority support in the WV House, or by the Governor’s veto. 

The initial bill that was accelerated to a Senate vote on Opening Day 2023 would split the troubled Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) into three new state agencies, a new Department of Health, a new Department of Human Services, and a new Department of Health Facilities. This bill was unanimously passed by the Senate and House in the last session, but was vetoed last year by Governor Jim Justice — who wanted to slow the pace of DHHR changes, and give more time to study the feasibility of breaking up the State’s largest agency last. 

The second principal fast tracked bill would put a six-month time limit on Executive (gubernatorial) declared states of emergency, a response to the open-ended and multi-year COVID-19 Governor’s “state of emergency” declared in 2020. A related bill that also passed the Senate in this unusual Opening Day activity would limit the ability of any Governor to distribute certain Federal emergency grant money, without legislative oversight and approval.

The third major subject addressed on Opening Day was the PEIA — the Public Employees’ Insurance Agency. In the first week of January 2023 the Wheeling Hospital publicly announced it would no longer be accepting any West Virginia PEIA payments, according to MetroNews, who reported that Wheeling Hospital officials said “financial challenges have been compounded by PEIA’s 59 percent reimbursement rate, which is set by the State.” 

In 2022 the Senate had approved unanimously a bill that reimburses West Virginia medical providers for PEIA clients at a much higher rate, 110 percent of the federal Medicare reimbursement rate, and this was officially estimated to cost the state an additional forty million dollars annually.

The West Virginia Senate had passed that bill unanimously last year, but the legislative session’s clock ran out — without the PIAE insurance medical funding bill ever passing the House of Delegates or going to the Governor’s desk, leaving state employees unprotected.

The bill that passed Wednesday was essentially the same bill.

Other bills were also approved by the Senate during Opening Day, most notably a controversial bill that seeks to limit public classroom delivery of “Critical Race Theory” material, if it makes any group of people automatically classed as “oppressed” or “oppressors.” Other states have passed similar bills recently, which are sure to end up in litigation over first amendment and educational oversight legal aspects.

While State House Democrats were quick to attack the Senate suspension of traditional rules, lack of committee hearings, public input and third reading procedures, HNN reporters in Charleston noted that two out of the three remaining Democrats in the Senate, Senators Plymale and Woelfel (both D-Cabell) actually voted for the PEIA funding, the emergency limits and the division of the Department of Health and Human Resources agency into three new, smaller more manageable agencies. Mike Caputo (D-Marion) was therefore the only State Senator to vote against dividing up the DHHR into three new separate agencies in the unusual Opening Day roll call votes.

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