The Back Pew – April 8th, 2017

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The legislative session ends this week. As the old song says, what a long strange trip it has been!

BUDGET. Last week I shared my optimism that we would pass a fair budget on time. Boy, was I wrong! Barring a last-minute miracle this Sunday (Palm Sunday, ironically), there will be no budget.

What happened? Leadership in the House and Senate passed budgets with huge cuts in education and health, rather than making the investments we need to improve our economy. They proposed some $200 million in tax measures, but instead of spreading those around between the rich, business, and consumers (like the Governor’s plan does), they relied solely on consumer taxes that affect the middle and lower class the most. Their plan also leads to an even larger budget deficit in the coming years as the sales tax decreases over time. Perhaps most importantly, they refused to even vote on  the Governor’s road-building bills in the House. We have tens of thousands of jobs ready to go to rebuild our roads, but they wouldn’t even allow a vote on it. So… there will be no agreed-upon budget by the end of the session.

I am ashamed to be part of a legislature that has once again failed to do its most important job. We should not even have to consider talking about a shutdown. I pray cooler heads will prevail once the pressure of the legislative session lifts.

What happens next? I presume Gov. Justice will veto their budget. The House and Senate will then go back to the negotiating table with him. If an agreement is reached, the legislature will be called back into session to approve it. If no agreement is reached by the end of June, the governor will have no choice but to shut the government down.

MEDICAL MARIJUANA. You’ve probably heard about Tuesday’s historic vote allowing medical marijuana for patients in WV with certain illnesses. Fifteen years ago, I never would have supported it. But after working as a hospital chaplain, I met people who could not find relief from certain illnesses – veterans with PTSD, burn victims, women with breast cancer, children with seizures – but could find relief from medical marijuana. That changed my mind. If we can safely help folks in pain, we should. One family in our community had to choose between breaking the law to help their child or continuing to watch the child suffer. No parent should have to make that choice, so I voted in favor.

I heard from several folks in my church and our community who oppose medical marijuana. I took those comments very seriously. Folks are concerned this could make the drug crisis worse. They are concerned we don’t have enough medical research. They are concerned young people will get their hands on it. I hear those concerns. But I think the rewards outweigh the risks right now. Moreover, the limited bill we passed will allow us to test the waters for those who really need it, but have plenty of time and safeguards in place to get it right.

Until next week, that’s the view from the back pew in the Capitol.

(Stephen Baldwin is a local pastor and Delegate to the WV House. You may reach him at 304-340-3131 or stephen.baldwin@wvhouse.gov)