Monday, January 15, 2001

Legislators tussle over committees

By Mark R. Chellgren
The Associated Press

        FRANKFORT — In the General Assembly, where minor disagreements can sometimes get blown out of proportion, a spat over statutory committees means little outside the Capitol.

        The committees, which review executive branch construction and bonding, regulations and contracting, have no legal authority to do much of anything but meet. Any recommendations they make can be ignored by administrators with no real consequences.

        But they have enormous potential as political platforms, which probably explains the whole controversy.

        Three of the committees have four House members and three Senate members. Two have five Democrats and two Republicans while the third is 4-3 Democratic. The fourth has equal membership between the two chambers and parties and has a Republican chairwoman.

        Republican Senate President Williams has been trying for a year to gain control of the committees.

        He first tried to wrest control during the 2000 session but was stopped by the House, which has traditionally held most of the seats on the committees and the chairmanships. When Mr. Williams failed to win concessions after the session, he responded by refusing to let interim committee meetings begin.

        During the organizational part of the legislative session earlier this month, Senate Democrats said Mr. Williams enlisted them in an effort to gain numerical parity between the House and Senate on the committees. Senate Democrats said they balked when Mr. Williams upped the ante and insisted they go along with a plan to install Republican Senate chairmen on all the committees.

        When they refused, Mr. Williams arbitrarily assigned the 18 Democratic senators to committees and took away one of their slots on the key Appropriations and Revenue Committee.

        The committees' influence comes from focusing attention on a contract, project or regulation. That translates into political clout.

        Mr. Williams has said the committees oversee the “gravy train” of state government.

        Democrats acknowledge the po tential for political mischief.

        Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, said the committees already fulfill the legislative intent of keeping an eye on executive branch activity. Mr. Yonts said Republicans want something else — “Whether you have oversight or whether you have harassment.”

        Rep. Woody Allen, R-Morgantown, the Republican whip in the House and member of the regulations committee, said Republican control would further good government interests.

        “A two-party system creates competition. One party would cater to the administration,” Mr. Allen said in an interview.

        Rep. John Arnold of Sturgis, the chairman of the regulations committee, had a slightly different take but agreed that Republican control would make a difference.

        “Since we're Democrats, and the governor's a Democrat, (Republicans) would probably find more fault with regulations that come through,” Mr. Arnold said. “I think it would be more chaos, more gridlock.”

        Sen. Marshall Long, D-Shelbyville, one of the primary protagonists of the disagreement, said Republicans want a big stick.

        “They're going to use it as a forum to beat on the governor, basically,” Mr. Long said.

        There is also the matter of legislative perquisite. One of the main reasons there are so many committees in the General Assembly is so there can be more committee chairmen. Holding a chairmanship connotes some additional influence and is something to display at re-election time. The legislature's elected leaders use chairmanships to reward supporters — House leaders want to continue to have goodies to hand out.

        Conversely, Mr. Williams would have at least three more plums to use as enticements to try to keep his GOP colleagues in line.

        The latest disagreement could also spill over into the House.

        House Democrats, who hold a huge 66-34 advantage over Republicans, were outraged their Senate counterparts even agreed to the initial offering. But in the interest of partisan solidarity, the House Democrats may impose retribution on House Republicans. And House Democratic Leader Greg Stumbo said his side would do what it could to help Senate Democrats from getting hurt too badly in redistricting.


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