By Phil Kabler
The Charleston Gazette
Reflections on a historic Election Day:
Naturally, the victories could turn out to be a blessing or a curse for Republicans, who for decades have said how they would improve the business climate, cut taxes, reform education and upgrade infrastructure, if only they were in power.
Now that they’re in control, they’re under pressure to deliver on their promises, and they may discover that talk is easy, but governing is hard. If the problems facing the state were easy to solve, they already would have been.
Meanwhile, when considering the magnitude of change, I was reminded that when he was in the Senate, Walt Helmick liked to say there were not two, but really four legislative caucuses: Republicans, pro-labor Democrats, conservative Democrats, and really conservative Democrats.
Heeding that pearl of wisdom, the change of control of the House and Senate may be less dramatic than some are imagining, since over the years there have been many legislators who were essentially Democrats in name only, hailing from districts where, at the time, it was impossible for Republicans to get elected.
Last session, for instance, a Democrat-controlled Legislature passed bills banning late-term abortions and nullifying municipal gun ordinances.
The issue is not whether conservative-backed bills will pass the new Legislature, but the magnitude of the numbers of those bills, now that some of the more effective gatekeepers, such as Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, are out of power.
On the Senate side, there’s some comfort in knowing a leadership team of Bill Cole, R-Mercer (as president), Mike Hall, R-Putnam (as Finance chairman) and longtime delegate Charlie Trump, R-Morgan (as Judiciary chairman) would be a pretty prudent, level-headed crew of moderate Republicans.
First thing Wednesday, lobbyists and political observers began speculating on legislation we’ll see in the 2015 session.
Among the consensus items: restrictions on abortion, including revisiting the late-term ban vetoed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin; charter schools; merit pay for teachers; further reductions in or outright elimination of state Lottery subsidies for thoroughbred and greyhound racing; repeal of prevailing wage law for government construction projects; repeal of tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike and/or rejection of proposals to extend the tolls in order to underwrite road bonds; tax cuts, beginning with elimination of the inventory tax; program cuts to bring the budget into balance with the corresponding tax cuts.
One of the first calls I got Wednesday was from Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper, who declared that the “war on coal” is over, now that a Republican-controlled Congress can de-fund the EPA, and override any veto of the funding cuts.
If demand for coal continues to decline, we’ll know it’s just good old-fashioned market forces at work, and not government over-regulation.
Among the biggest losers Tuesday were labor unions in the state, who combined to spend nearly $2 million on independent expenditure campaigns to counter the anti-Obama tide, but will have very few friends left in the 2015 Legislature.
(Most people I talked to found the TV spots from the Honest West Virginians Super PAC, with their Jib-Jab style animation, bewildering. Using comical graphics in attack ads was an experiment that fell flat.)
Longtime lobbyist Brenda Nichols Harper said she was at an event last week that put the more than $6.5 million of super PAC independent expenditures used to influence the state legislative races into perspective.
She was at the Boys and Girls Club of the Eastern Panhandle to present a $3,500 grant for food pantries on behalf of her new employer, Unicare. During the presentation, she said Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, asked the children in attendance, “How many of you will not have anything to eat when you go home tonight?”
More than half the grade-school to middle-school age children raised their hands, she said.
While the election cycle obliterated records for independent expenditures for attack ads against legislative candidates, state voter turnout set an all-time record low (at least as far back as records go). Clearly, voters are being turned off by incessant negative campaign ads.
Finally, I have to say I deluded myself into thinking the anti-Obama tide would not reach down to legislative races, thinking that voters would put their best interests — i.e. keeping representatives with power and seniority in the Legislature — over a opportunity to “send a message to Obama.”
Then again, following several marginally productive sessions — the 2014 session was dominated by complex drinking water protection legislation that probably would have been better addressed with a year-long study in interim committee, and a late-term abortion ban that had to be vetoed — the Democratic leadership in both houses had not really made a case to the voters that they were irreplaceable.