A sign for Gov. Jim Justice's vaccine sweepstakes, "Do It For Babydog," is shown on a truck that was awarded as a prize in what became a $23 million-plus campaign to incentivize vaccines and a significant CARES Act expense.
The nearly three-year-long state of emergency in West Virginia related to COVID-19 ended at the beginning of this year. The “emergency” lasted as long as Gov. Jim Justice had federal COVID-related money to spend.
The Legislature finally wised up to the fact that three years is not an emergency, and it took overdue steps to reduce the governor’s power to drag out an “emergency” for as long as he could.
This session, Senate Bill 128 sought to limit the governor’s power over emergencies in several ways. It passed the Senate unanimously — 34-0, with all senators voting — and 87-4 in the 100-member House of Delegates. Rather than signing the bill or vetoing it, Justice allowed SB 128 to become law without his signature, and it took effect on March 4.
SB 128 states that a governor may declare a state of emergency in specified situations, but the emergency expires 60 days after issuance unless the Legislature adopts a concurrent resolution extending it beyond 60 days. The resolution must establish an expiration date for the state of emergency. Either the governor or the Legislature may terminate the state of emergency.
As noted here before, the power state officials had during the state of emergency had already dissipated as residents grew weary of arbitrary decisions that were made — in theory — to protect public health but instead favored some groups over others. You couldn’t attend church, but you could attend political rallies. One store could sell art supplies but another couldn’t.
This past fall, Justice said he delayed ending the state of emergency so state officials could “double, triple check” that the state wouldn’t lose out on any COVID-related federal money that might still be available. What had started as a means of preventing the spread of a disease turned into a power grab over who controls money.
The Legislature could have intervened in 2020 and exerted its power over the federal COVID relief money. But it didn’t. By their inaction, legislators showed they were OK with the governor’s ations.
It took legislators years, but at last they did the right thing. The power to allocate money in the state treasury belongs to the Legislature, not to the governor, even in a “state of emergency” that drags on for nearly three years.
SB 128 sets other limits on states of emergency. The governor cannot use a state of emergency to close churches or other houses of worship or prevent their operation in any manner that is more restrictive than the least restrictive provisions in place for the operation of the most essential facilities of government or private enterprise; suspend or limit the lawful sale or transport of firearms or ammunition; and for the most part interfere with or impair the operation of the news media.
SB 128 reins in powers governors have exerted in situations such as COVID-19 or the 1972 Buffalo Creek flood. It’s a step that should have been taken sooner, but at least now the governor’s ability to act in an arbitrary manner has been limited.