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Two bills become law without the governor’s signature, and one big veto

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Two bills become law without the governor’s signature, and one big veto

Apr 02, 2024 | 5:55 am ET
By Leann Ray
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Two bills become law without the governor’s signature, and one big veto
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The West Virginia House of Delegates voted to pass House Bill 5105 on March 9, 2024. Gov. Jim Justice vetoed the bill, which would have loosened school vaccine requirements. (Perry Bennett | West Virginia Legislative Photography)

Last week, Gov. Jim Justice signed into law the majority of the 279 bills passed by the West Virginia Legislature during the 2024 regular session.

Wednesday was the deadline for him to take action on all bills. He did so on all but two, allowing those — changes to unemployment benefits and the sale of raw milk — to become law without his signature.

Senate Bill 841 changed the length of time people can receive unemployment benefits and capped the maximum benefit amount. Benefits rates will not be adjusted with inflation — it would take another act of the Legislature to raise the maximum benefit amount. The bill was opposed by many people, including the West Virginia AFL-CIO, so it makes sense that the governor didn’t want to put his signature on it.

I’m not sure why he decided not to sign House Bill 4911, which legalizes the sale of raw milk to the public. The only real issue in this bill — a provision that would have made sellers of raw milk immune to lawsuit and liability for claims related to personal injury — was eliminated and did not make it to the final version.

There are risks to drinking raw milk — like consuming bacteria such as Campylobacter, E. coli, or Salmonella; viruses; and parasites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — but consuming raw milk has been legal in the state through herd-sharing programs since 2016. 

Justice ended up vetoing eight bills, including the controversial vaccine exemption bill.

House Bill 5105 would have allowed West Virginia’s private and parochial schools to develop their own vaccine requirements, and exempted students who attend virtual schools from school-mandated vaccines. 

Justice, who was a strong supporter of the COVID-19 vaccine when it was first released in 2021, said he listened to the dozens of health organizations who urged him to veto the bill.

“The overwhelming majority that have voiced their opinion believe that this legislation will do irreparable harm by crippling childhood immunity to diseases such as mumps and measles,” Justice wrote in his veto letter. “West Virginia historically has seen very few instances of these diseases, specifically because the vaccination requirements in this State are so strong. Importantly, the vaccines at issue have been required in this State for decades and have kept our communities safe. Our surrounding states, however, have seen spikes in such illnesses recently. These spikes, we are advised, are the result of the lesser vaccine requirements in those states.”

It’s strange to say that it was brave of someone to make a decision that takes the majority of people’s health in consideration, but there are conservative groups who will use this to attack him as he continues his run for U.S. Senate. 

For example, Del. Elias Coop-Gonzalez, R-Randolph, posted on X, “Our corrupt liberal Governor @JimJusticeWV just VETOED HB 5105, the Vaccine Freedom Bill. Unbelievable! Make sure to keep this man out of the US Senate!”

“Liberal” governor? Get out of here. It’s wild that when someone acknowledges health experts and shows empathy that the word “liberal” is thrown at them as an insult despite literally everything else about them.

Sen. Mike Stuart, R-Kanawha, also posted about his disappointment in the veto on X.

“Disappointed in the vaccine veto. A very narrow bill. Virtual public schools? Of course mom and dad should decide if Johnny is vaccinated if he’s taking online classes. Private parochial schools? Govt has messed up public schools and ought to leave private schools alone.”

Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, told MetroNews that the government shouldn’t be telling private schools what to do.

“And when it comes to public virtual students, we’re talking about students who do not take a step inside of a public school building. So they are online learning in their homes and we are still mandating them to get vaccinated, and obviously that just doesn’t make any sense,” she said.

Are homeschooled children staying at home constantly? A lot of homeschool families like to take their children on field trips — are they being placed into bubbles when they go into public places? Just because a child is homeschooled doesn’t mean that they can’t pass on diseases to others.

Some on X questioned whether the Legislature can override the governor’s veto.

Because the Legislature is not in session currently, lawmakers can’t. If the governor calls a special session, he sets the agenda, so they can’t override a veto then either. However, if three-fifths of members from both the House of Delegates and Senate called themselves in for a special session, they could override his vetoes. Gazette-Mail Statehouse columnist Phil Kabler posted on X that this hasn’t happened since he started covering the Legislature in the 1990s. It’s not impossible, but highly unlikely. 

This isn’t the end of the fight though. Another similar bill will be introduced next year, and if the members of the Legislature stay the same, it will likely move through both chambers again.

The biggest difference is Justice will no longer be in the governor’s office.

How would the four top Republican gubernatorial candidates have acted on the bill?

Well, only Secretary of State Mac Warner responded to MetroNews. Warner, who during a debate said he had to get numerous vaccines in the military but regretted getting the COVID-19 vaccine, said he would have signed the bill. 

During the same debate, businessman Chris Miller referred to the pandemic as a “scamdemic,” and said his family wasn’t vaccinated. Neither former Delegate Moore Capitol or Attorney General Patrick Morrisey would say if they were vaccinated.

However, in November 2022. Morrisey sent a letter urging the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services to remove the COVID vaccine mandate for health care workers.

The only Democrat running for governor, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams, filmed PSAs encouraging people to get the COVID-19 vaccine. 

This is why local elections matter. If you want to know how your legislators voted on the vaccine exemption bill, you can check the legislative roll call for the Senate and the House