CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The Republican-dominated Senate in West Virginia fast-tracked two monumental health proposals and another bill that would restrict how subjects like race are taught in the classroom during the first day of its legislative session Wednesday.
The Senate bypassed rules that require proposals to be considered by committees and read three times to greenlight more than two dozen bills, many of them resurrected policy ideas from years past.
A bill dubbed the “Anti-Racism Act of 2023,” this year’s version of a controversial proposal from last year that restricts how subjects like race are taught in K-12 public schools, passed with only two “no” votes, both from Democrats. The bill bans teachers from telling students that one race “is inherently racist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
The “Anti-Racism Act of 2022” failed last year after weeks of debate when senators missed a midnight deadline in the final moments of the 2022 session. It had already passed the House.
“My question to you is, are our kids tough enough to learn about racism, to learn about segregation and slavery?” said Democratic Sen. Mike Woelfel, who voted against the bill. “I mean, are we handcuffing teachers with this bill?”
Supporter Republican Sen. Amy Grady, a public school teacher and the new chair of the Senate Education Committee, said she teaches her students about segregation and “how wrong it was.”
“We do need to discuss racism — that’s why this is the ‘anti-racism act,’” she said.
Grady said she teaches in a school district where there is a high poverty rate and where many students live without heat and running water.
“How can we tell these kids that they have a step up or leg up in society?” she said. “The same way with inner city kids, inner city African American kids, it’s not fair to them for us to say, you know, you have a leg down.”
The first major health bill senators passed Wednesday would reorganize the ailing Department of Health and Human Resources into three separate departments: Health, Health Facilities and Human Services.
Lawmakers passed a bill last year to split the department in half, but it was vetoed by Republican Gov. Jim Justice. In November, a consulting firm hired by Justice to review West Virginia’s health agency concluded the department should not be split as lawmakers wanted.
The McChrystal Group of Alexandria, Virginia, was hired to review the Department of Health and Human Resources. The report said the current configuration “is not an option” but that splitting the agency would “divert time, funding, and leadership’s focus away from serving West Virginians.”
It’s unclear how lawmakers will get support from Justice to split up the department, or whether they have enough votes to override a potential veto. A different bill to split up the Department of Health and Human Resources is being proposed in the House of Delegates.
The other health bill greenlit by senators would increase the reimbursement rates hospitals that treat patients with government health insurance receive. The proposed legislation would increase the current 59% Public Employees Insurance Agency in-patient reimbursement rate to 110% of the Medicare reimbursement rate.
The cost of the bill would be $40 million. It would go into effect July 1.
The bill comes after WVU Medicine Wheeling Hospital announced last week that it will stop accepting Public Employees Insurance Agency patients July 1, citing low reimbursement rates.
Republican Sen. Tom Takubo described the bill as a “first fix to stop the bleeding.”
The Public Employees Insurance Agency provides health care coverage to state and local government employees and their families. The total enrollment is about 75,000 active members.
Rising healthcare costs and concerns about the long-term solvency of the Public Employees Insurance Agency was a major driver of a statewide teachers’ walkout in 2018, and public employees say not enough has been done to address those issues since.
The move to skip the usual process of sending bills to committees and reading them three times in the chamber received swift rebuke from the leadership of the Democrats, who now occupy only 15 seats in the 134-member Legislature. That’s 18 fewer than last year. West Virginia Democratic Party Chair Mike Pushkin, also a state delegate, called Wednesday’s move by Republicans “the death of transparency and accountability in the State Senate.”
The ACLU of West Virginia wrote on Twitter: “On day 1 of the session, the WV Senate is suspending the Constitution and passing major bills regarding emergency powers, reorganizing DHHR, and more. No public input. No committee review.”
“This robs the public of the thoughtful, transparent process we are owed,” the group said.
The Senate also passed more than a dozen bills on the first day of the 2022 session, most of which were proposals lawmakers had approved the year before but failed to pass the final hurdle in the House.