By Brad McElhinny, WV MetroNews
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A showdown is about to start on the big education bill.
The state Senate is set to receive the House’s version of the bill on Monday. Then it has three choices: accept the House’s changes, amend the bill or refuse to concur with the House.
“The provisions the House has changed about the bill trouble us somewhat,” Senate President Mitch Carmichael said last week on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
The most likely scenarios lead to a conference committee of senators and delegates to work out differences. And it’s anyone’s guess whether that would be successful. If the conference committee agrees, each entire house would still vote on approval.
Despite significant policy differences, Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker said she believes the House and Senate can agree on a bill. She says delegates just need to talk it out.
“Absolutely. Absolutely,” she said. “But in terms of these things, let’s have that discussion. Once we get all the facts, I think we can find a compromise. And I really do believe there will be a compromise bill that I think everyone will be happy with. I do.”
The two bills
There are big differences between the bills.
The House took out a non-severability clause that would have killed all the provisions of the bill if any part were struck down in court. Delegates also removed “paycheck protection,” a requirement for teachers union members to sign off annually on union dues.
The Senate bill had an unlimited number of charter schools, but delegates narrowed that to a charter program of two low-performing schools that would choose to convert to charters.
“We’re not myopic in our view that it needs to be unlimited charter schools. But we need to have the option,” said Carmichael, R-Jackson.
Delegates wiped out education savings accounts, which is money set aside for students moving from public school to private education.
“It’s not a hill to die on,” Carmichael said of ESAs. But, he added, “It should be an option in West Virginia.”
And the House version includes a goal of police officers in every school, which comes with an estimated price of $40 million.
Add to that list a provision allowing counties to approve increasing local levy rates up to a maximum.
That was particularly contentious in the House, where some delegates viewed the provision as local control and others saw it as a property tax increase. The provision was, at one point, amended out on a 50-49 vote. Then it was reconsidered and revived on a 47-52 vote.
A final issue is cost. House Finance Chairman Eric Householder put a price tag of more than $202 million on the bill.
The House view
All those are issues where senators and delegates could it challenging to reach agreement.
“One of the parts that goes into a conference committee on a bill like this is figuring out what can both houses pass,” said House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay.
But Hanshaw does not believe the bill will collapse.
“I don’t know. I doubt it,” he said.
“I think there’s so many good things in the bill now that almost everybody in every corner of the state benefits from this bill in some way. I don’t think there’s any set of facts under which the whole thing dies.”
It’s a delicate balance, though.
Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, said in a floor speech last week that he didn’t trust the conference committee process. That’s one of the reasons Fluharty gave for not voting for the bill as it set sail from the House.
“I know what’s going to happen next, guys. I’m not falling for the tricks. And I’m not taking the bait. Because what will happen next is the Senate will reject this. We know that’s going to happen.
“The Senate rejects, we go into conferees, we handpick a couple of legislators to make the decisions for us and then we’re stuck with a pile of garbage again.”
Another Democrat, Delegate Linda Longstreth of Marion County, said the changes the House made had persuaded her to vote for the bill.
“Today, I will say, I will vote for this bill. But if it leaves this House and the Senate changes one sentence, one period, and it comes back to this House, I will vote against the bill,” she said.
The House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly, 40-59, against an amendment to increase the number of charter schools. They only narrowly, 45-49, voted down an amendment that would have killed the entire charter schools provision.
Delegates even more overwhelmingly, 37-62, voted down an amendment to put education savings accounts back in the bill.
The American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia believes those votes are a sign of trouble for the bill.
“Given the overwhelming majority that the House’s version passed in that chamber, as well as the failures of multiple amendments during second reading to add ESAs and expand charter schools, it would be unlikely for the majority of the House to move much on these issues,” AFT-WV President Fred Albert wrote in an open letter to union members.
“Additionally, we believe the Senate will object to the increased fiscal note on the House version.”
Albert’s assessment sees two avenues for the bill to die.
“If the compromise version fails in either chamber, the bill is dead,” he wrote. “If the compromise version passes both chambers, the Governor can still veto the bill.”
The Senate view
In the Senate, Democrats also have doubts about a compromise. Minority Leader Roman Prezioso read meaning into the fact that the Senate didn’t take up the bill on Friday.
“Obviously since they didn’t take the bill up they’re thinking they can get more of the Senate’s position back into the bill when we go into conference,” said Prezioso, D-Marion.
“And if that happens, then they’re going to roll some of the aspects of probably the savings accounts and beef up the charter school sections. And I hope they wouldn’t add some of the aspects that are very irritable to the teacher groups. But we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Senator Rucker said she continues to strongly support charter schools and education savings accounts.
“Those are what you would call the school choice provisions, and I still believe they are very, very important,” Rucker said. “And again, why are we limiting the counties and choices and limiting parents in their choices?”
From her perspective, the Senate had already placed limits on charter schools and education savings accounts.
“We can limit it in scope,” she said, “but I still would like to see some type of school choice.”
Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair said there’s room for compromise.
“Oh, I believe so, yeah,” said Blair, R-Berkeley.
But he has strong reservations about the cost of the police in schools provision and the full $202 million cost of the House version of the education bill.
“That’s too large for what we have budget-wise unless we’re willing to make changes somewhere else in the budget,” he said.
Elusive consensus in conference committee
Conference committees can help resolve relatively simple differences on bills. But conference committees on big, complicated bills have tended to fizzle in recent years at the Legislature.
Last year, a conference committee on a teachers pay raise bill struggled to reach agreement, with all the House conferees plus a Senate Democrat on one side and two Republicans from the Senate on another. The Senators eventually proposed a solution.
The prior year, a conference committee to work out differences on the state budget also struggled, concluding its work with all the House conferees plus the Senate Democrats signing an agreement— but with no signatures from the Senate Republicans.
Gov. Jim Justice, speaking Friday outside his office, said he has faith the House and Senate can work out their differences.
“I think at the end of the day everything’s going to work out OK,” he said. “I hope and pray that it’ll be something that all parties are happy with and all parties think that is something that moves us forward in a positive way.”
Justice said he favors the changes made by the House.
“I feel better. I feel a lot better because there were certain things that I never thought had any chance of passing and that I couldn’t be behind,” he said. “But I think the House’s movement was in a positive way.”
The governor promised the pay raises that are wrapped up in the bill back in early October. On Friday, he said he would call a special session to get the pay raises done if the situation comes to that.
“No question I would because we’re not going to let it fall apart,” he said. “We’re just not going to let that happen.”