Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Mountain State Spotlight. Get stories like this delivered to your email inbox once a week; sign up for the free newsletter at https://mountainstatespotlight.org/newsletter
By Ian Karbal, Mountain State Spotlight
West Virginians will send even more Republicans to the statehouse next year, even as voters rejected legislative leaders’ bid to change the state constitution to expand the body’s power.
According to unofficial results available Tuesday night, all four of the proposed constitutional amendments were defeated by wide margins. Those include Amendment 2, which would have allowed lawmakers to cut property taxes, and Amendment 4, which would have given the Legislature more authority over public school policy.
U.S. Representatives Carol Miller and Alex Mooney easily won reelection in West Virginia’s new 1st and 2nd congressional districts. And in the statehouse, Republicans picked up seats in both the House of Delegates and the Senate, expanding their supermajority in both chambers. Those gains came at the expense of Democrats: Many incumbents including Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, lost reelection bids.
This means Republicans will go into the 2023 legislative session with even more members than they had in previous years. But that’s not necessarily a guarantee they’ll be able to execute their priorities: they’ve had a supermajority (more than two-thirds of the seats in both chambers) since 2020, and still struggled to pass some of their signature pieces of legislation.
Here are three main takeaways from the 2022 election:
Bloodbath for Senate, House Democrats
Democrats were battered in both chambers of the statehouse. The effect will be particularly felt in the Senate, where Democrats will now only hold four seats to Republicans’ 30.
Of the 17 state Senate races on ballots, Democrats only claimed one. Minority Whip Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, who won his election against pro-abortion rights Republican Melissa Clark, was also the only Senate Democrat to vote in favor of banning most abortion.
Seats currently held by Sens. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia and Mike Romano, D- Harrison, who both resigned, were picked up by Republicans. Sen. Owens Brown, D-Ohio, lost his primary, and Republican Laura Wakim Chapman ultimately won the general election. And Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, who had held the seat since 2006, lost to Republican Mike Stuart.
During the last legislative session, Senate Republicans were often divided, with Democrats siding with more moderate Republicans. With a larger Senate Republican majority, it’s unclear how that dynamic will change.
Incumbent Democrats fared better in the House, though the Republican supermajority will still expand significantly.
While the party’s leaders in the House held onto their seats, four of the 22 current Democratic delegates were defeated. Eight incumbent Democrats either didn’t run for reelection or lost primaries.
Only two Republican incumbents lost their elections. Del. Andrew Anderson, R-Kanawha, narrowly lost to Del. Kayla Young after Anderson’s predecessor was drawn into the same district during last year’s redistricting. Del. Austin Haynes, R-Fayette, lost to Democratic challenger David Pritt. In the last weeks of the election, Haynes was publicly accused of sexual harassment when a Raleigh County lawyer announced plans to file a lawsuit alleging Haynes sought sex in exchange for votes. The Beckley Register-Herald has since reported that multiple women have made similar allegations.
Ultimately, Republicans picked up 10 seats in the House, expanding their supermajority to 88 of the 100 seats in the chamber.
Prepare for a lengthy fight over tax policy
Voters rejected Amendment 2: a Senate-backed proposal to change the state constitution to allow lawmakers to cut personal property taxes on business inventory, machinery and personal vehicles. This was a key priority for Sen. President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and Sen. Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, who said the move would lure businesses to the state and ultimately save West Virginians money.
But their primary opponent in the battle for public opinion was Gov. Jim Justice, who spent the past few weeks traveling the state with his dog, campaigning against the amendment. While he also wants to cut taxes, Justice wants to do it in the form of across-the-board income tax cuts, and argued losing revenue from both income and property taxes would leave too large of a hole in the state’s budget.
Now that the amendment has been defeated, the fighting between the leaders of the executive and legislative branches could still spill over into this year’s legislative session. While Senate Republicans will not be able to implement their property tax cut plan, Justice will need the support of lawmakers to cut income taxes. His last effort to do so failed during a special session that quickly became almost entirely about banning abortion.
Plus, with their expanded supermajority intact, a united Republican caucus could override any veto from Justice’s office.
Lawmakers won’t get more power over impeachment, education policy
Although Amendment 2 dominated the debate in the weeks leading up to the election, it wasn’t the only proposed change to the state constitution on the ballot. Voters also rejected the other three amendments: one would have allowed churches to incorporate, while two other measures would have given more power to lawmakers in West Virginia’s statehouse.
One of the failed amendments — Amendment 4 — would have given legislators increased control over West Virginia school policies by allowing them rulemaking review authority over state Department of Education policies. That means if the amendment had passed, any rule created by the state Board of Education — whether it be about curriculum, discipline or building requirements, for example — would have had to be approved, rejected or amended by lawmakers.
Using the rulemaking review process in this way could have made shaping school policies easier for lawmakers. Now, without the amendment, lawmakers seeking to influence school policies will have to pass bills to that effect. They’ve previously shown an appetite for that, but with mixed results: last session, a bill that would have governed how teachers could address systemic racism, sexism, and homophobia in their classrooms dramatically failed even after receiving votes in both chambers.
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, who handily won re-election, has said he wants to make public education policy a focus of the next legislative session, though it’s unclear yet what that will entail.
A third failed amendment would have given lawmakers more control over the impeachment process by eliminating the state Supreme Court’s oversight role. The amendment was proposed in response to the 2018 impeachment of West Virginia’s supreme court justices.
When one judge successfully stopped her impeachment trial from happening through court intervention, lawmakers questioned the role of the judiciary in a process that, federally, is done entirely within the legislative branch.
The final amendment on the ballot would have allowed churches to incorporate. It’s a practice that West Virginia’s Secretary of State Mac Warner said his office has already begun after a lawsuit in Virginia found a similar constitutional clause to the one that would have been amended in West Virginia unconstitutional.
Reach reporter Ian Karbal at firstname.lastname@example.org