By Charles Young
April 4, 2021 - This year’s session of the West Virginia Legislature has been unconventional to say the least.
The Capitol, which is normally open to the public throughout the 60-day session, has been accessible only by appointment due to protocols and precautions put in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This has limited the unfettered access to lawmakers usually enjoyed by lobbyists and others hoping to advocate for or against potential legislation.
While things have certainly been different this year, the unusual nature of the session has not stopped stakeholders of the state’s energy industries from participating in the process and working to advance their agendas.
“There’s no question about it; it’s had an effect on the session and on the various groups such as ours,” said Chris Hamilton, president of the West Virginia Coal Association.
However, his organization spends all year preparing for the session and already had a firm game plan in place before the details of how the session would be conducted were released, Hamilton said.
“If you wait until the beginning of the 60-day session to really present your issues and priorities, you’re already considerably a couple of months late,” he said. “We’ll begin this spring talking about some of the issues we have, and we keep pretty close communications with a group of pro-coal legislators throughout the course of the year.”
The limited nature of this year’s session prevented Hamilton from getting to know some of the Legislatures newest members, he said.
“We lost a little bit of personal contact with the newly elected members,” he said. “Not having the opportunity to spend the kind of time that you ordinarily would just making acquaintances and just having a conversation about things. It would be hard to say that there wasn’t some level of communication that was lost given the current COVID situation.”
Charlie Burd, executive director of the Gas and Oil Association of West Virginia (GO-WV), said legislative leaders deserve credit for taking steps to try and prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 among its members.
Many who have testified before legislative committees this year have done so remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo: WV Legislative Photography
“I think they precautions that they took — although they might have seemed a bit harsh at first — I think for the safety of those 144 legislators, their staffs and the staff of the Capitol, I really think it was the right call,” he said. “They went in not knowing exactly how it might work and afraid that if there was an outbreak, it could just bring disaster to the legislative session.”
Prior to the start of this year’s session, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, predicted it would “be unlike any other we’ve had.”
“We know that just in the past couple of weeks, two states have already convened their legislative sessions and had them go in recess because of coronavirus outbreaks in the legislative sessions in those chambers,” he said a week prior to the start of the session. “We are cautious. We are trying to make certain that we take every precaution we can to keep people as safe as we can.”
Fears of possible COVID-10 outbreaks among lawmakers also dictated the speed the Republican majority planned to push their main priorities, Hanshaw said.
“We do anticipate trying to work a fairly aggressive agenda very early in the session, those first couple weeks, because our sister bodies around the country have found themselves shut down by coronavirus very recently,” he said. “We do not want that. And even if we find ourselves in that predicament, we want to be sure we’ve done the people’s business and passed the things that we’re trying to pass to move West Virginia in a positive direction.”
Access to the Capitol has been “fair and consistent” throughout the session, Burd said.
“You had to have a reason to be there and if you had a reason to be there there was no issue with getting in,” he said. “The leaders made it easy for those who couldn’t be there and wanted to testify or listen in remotely. I think those capabilities worked well and were utilized on many occasions. I saw lots of people testifying remotely.”
While he said he agreed with the need for precautions, Burd conceded they limited his lobbing efforts.
“Has it affected our ability to lobby? It’s effected everybody’s ability to lobby,” he said. “Because you don’t have that unfettered access to the delegates, the senators and their staffs like you would in a pre-pandemic legislative session.”