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Statehouse beat: Awkward abounds in December

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- April may be the cruelest month, but December is the most awkward month, at least at the Legislature.

After elections, December interims bring an uncomfortable mingling of lame-duck legislators trying to squeeze in a few more days in Charleston, often coming face-to-face with the incoming freshmen who beat them on Election Day a month earlier.

However, a relatively recent development in the House of Delegates is making things even more unpleasant.

The state constitution in Article 4, Section 7 says the term of office for legislators begins Dec. 1 -- and that has generally been interpreted as being a mechanism to prevent a lame-duck Legislature from calling itself into special session, particularly in cases where one party was swept out of power on Election Day.

In fact, the Senate interprets the section as meaning just that, so that barring the calling of a December special session, the Senate does not swear in new members until January.

The House has always taken a more literal interpretation of the Constitution, but until the last couple of election cycles that hasn't been an issue, since the vast majority of new delegates waited until January to take the oath.

However, beginning in 2010 and accelerating this year, delegates in waiting -- mostly Republicans -- have been showing up in swarms to get sworn in early in December.

As of the end of December interims, all but two of the 46 Republican delegates in the incoming 81st Legislature have already been sworn in, with the holdouts being Delegate Troy Andes, R-Putnam, and newcomer Mike Folk of Martinsburg.

Overall, 54 of the 100 delegates have taken the oath for the 81st Legislature, which made for some uncomfortable situations at December interims.

Delegate Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming, won election to the Senate. However, since his old two-member 22nd Delegate District is now the single-member 25th District (where Delegate Linda Goode Phillips, D-Wyoming, won re-election), when he arrived for interims, he was informed he is no longer a member of the House.

When he went over to the Senate to get sworn in, he was told to come back in January, leaving him in legislative limbo, and out of luck for the December interims.

Similarly, when lame-duck Delegate Gerald Crosier, D-Monroe, drove in Monday from Union for interims, he was told his successor, Delegate John D. O'Neal, R-Raleigh, had already been sworn in -- meaning that Crosier could not participate in interims as a delegate, nor collect the $285 a day of per-diem pay and expenses.

Potentially, the worst-case scenario was in Kanawha County's four-member 35th District, where incumbent Delegates Doug Skaff and Eric Nelson were re-elected, and where newcomer John McCuskey, R-Kanawha, had been sworn in, but going into interims eve, the other newcomer, Suzette Raines, had not.

That potentially meant only one of the two lame-ducks in the 35th -- Bonnie Brown or Bobbie Hatfield -- would have been allowed to participate in interims, but there's nothing in House rules to spell out who would be in and who would be out under that scenario.

As it turned out, Raines was among a whole bunch of Republicans who got sworn in Sunday evening, meaning neither Brown nor Hatfield could take part in interims.

For all the annoyances it causes, there's no benefit for newly elected delegates to rush to get sworn in early since, unlike Congress or public schools, the Legislature does not operate on the seniority system.

Technically, there are only two positions in the Legislature assigned based on seniority, president pro tempore and speaker pro tempore, and those titles are good for about 10 minutes of presiding over the Senate or House at the start of the session every two years.

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Of course, other than collecting per-diems and getting one more trip to Charleston, one could question whether there's any point in having lame-duck legislators attend interims.

Lame-duck Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, made the argument that there is, since those legislators have worked on the issues assigned to interim committees for the past eight months, and in most years, December interims are when committees finalize draft legislation for the upcoming session.

In fact, Doyle made some cogent amendments last week to the proposed outcome-based funding formula for higher education.

However, his final presentation as a legislator, promoting expansion of the ski industry in West Virginia, went over like the proverbial lead balloon.

Doyle said there are some 60 locations in the state that have elevations and vertical drops that are equal to or better than Snowshoe Ski Resort, and developers just need a little incentive to build additional ski resorts.

Doyle's proposal, to allow casinos at those resorts, was met with dead silence during the joint meeting of interim committees on Economic Development and Finance.

Given that the state's racetrack casinos are fighting for survival against new gambling outlets in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland, and with The Greenbrier reduced to busing in locals to gamble at its casino, it's no wonder Doyle rolled snake eyes with his proposal.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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