WV Legislature's 'crossover day' brings out the possums - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

WV Legislature's 'crossover day' brings out the possums

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Daily activities during legislative sessions beyond the meetings of the House of Delegates and Senate can bring about some strange sights: Civil War re-enactors, royalty from fairs and festivals near and far and even aerobic dancing.

But the fat possums run at night, as the saying goes, and they're more likely to appear the closer the session gets to its 60th day. 

To get an explanation of what that saying means at the Capitol, don't ask one of the new guys.

The fat possum, it seems, has become elusive.

Elusive Possums

"I heard it when I first came here, from people talking about the way it used to be," explained Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, who was first elected to the House in 2000. "The essence of that statement was that things could happen to these bills on the last few days of sessions and nights that didn't give each member an opportunity to fully apprise themselves of the issues and pieces in the bill."

Still struggling with the description?

The story goes that former Speaker of the House Clyde See, D-Hardy, who held that post from 1979-1983 coined the phrase. Current House Clerk Greg Gray has served for 41 years, and while he couldn't remember what specifically had prompted it, he's seen plenty enough to define a legislative fat possum.

"They surface from nowhere and just appear at the last minute," Gray said. "Let's say for example … a bill that has gone between the houses and presumed dead, because of time constraints or rule constraints, all of the sudden, the same bill or a similar subject matter surfaces – that's a fat possum."

Gray said he's sure possums existed before then; they just didn't have a name.

Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, is in his 31st year in the Senate.

He said "crossover day," marked each session for the 50th day, traditionally signals possum season.

"All the Senate bills have to be out of the Senate and all the House Bills out of the House, so when they have to come over to us, that's when the fat possums begin running at night," Chafin said.

Crossover day mandates that Senate bills must pass the Senate and House Bills must pass the House by that 50th day of the session or they are considered dead.

But Why Possums?

So what kinds of changes come about at the last minute and in the dark cover of night?

Chafin said he recalled bills related to dog breeders, casinos, cable and teachers each happening via a fat possum.

"Here's how it works: Most of the things people want in bills that we don't take time to read or can't understand will be amended into the bills and sent back to that respective house for acceptance," Chafin said. "Maybe some complicated amendment that you didn't want a newspaper to have their big spotlight in it. … If it stands alone, the (committee) chair has to stand up and explain.

"But if it's an amendment to a House bill, they can just say it's technical cleanup or a minor amendment."

Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said there are always ways to "resurrect" bills that have been presumed dead, and the fat possum way would be for a bill that originated in the same code section the possum wants to intrude in, then slip in an amendment that would gut the bill entirely.

"They can make the substitute for their entire bill," Kessler explained. "I've seen a bill go in looking like a dog, and come out looking like a cat."

Lobbyists on the Lookout

Jan Vineyard, who has lobbied the Legislature on behalf of the West Virginia Oil Marketers and Grocers Association and the West Virginia Trucking Association for many years, knows the possum well.

"Those of us who have been here a long time sometimes have visions of things that have happened in the past," Vineyard said.

She explained that lobbyists used to stand and leave committee meetings when they were displeased with an action, but she now stays put in case something she thought was dead comes back to life.

And the possum's cousin, the Christmas tree, keeps lobbyists on their toes as well. When a bill is Christmas treed, she explained, "you keep hanging things on."

An example from one legislative staffer's memory was when an attempt at a license plate was added onto with "extras" that were so ridiculous, the bill needed to be stopped.

An example Gray recalled was a conference report for an environmental bill that turned out to give pay raises to the Public Service Commission, which went unnoticed until the session was complete.

Delegate Brady Paxton, D-Putnam, has seen a lot of possums in his 20 years in the Legislature. He said while some people say it circumvents the process, sometimes a possum is necessary.

"When you have a bill and you need to grease it, sometimes the wee hours of the morning are better to do it than the bright light of the noon-day sun," Paxton said. "Sometimes it's for the best, but sometimes it might not be."

Becoming Extinct

While Paxton recalls a time when the final night of the Legislature had as much pageantry as a summertime Independence Day celebration, he said you just don't see as many possums as you used to.

And most legislative observers and lawmakers would agree.

"I would never stoop to any kind of chicanery to get any of my bills through, and the Speaker (Rick Thompson, D-Wayne) is above the board and honest as the day is long," Paxton said.

Vineyard said there is a lot more transparency in today's Legislature, with the website listing each version of a bill nearly instantly.

Gray said there wasn't always a crossover day to mandate time constraints.

"They were orderly then, but stuff was easier hidden," he explained.

And Kessler said staff members have gotten savvier.

"The staff scours (the bills), and all the amendments are posted online and our iPads simultaneous," he said. "There are stories of folks saying something that was called a technical amendment turns out to be substantive and actually changes the entire scope of the bill, but now the amendments pop up right on the iPad so everyone knows immediately and you don't have to rely on its portrayal or explanations."

And Gray explained that new lawmakers may not get a lesson in fat possums, per se, but they learn to stay on the lookout.

"I hope I expose them to enough stuff that they remember," he said of the training he provides new members during the first three days of the session. "It's so hectic by this juncture of the session, the members are so seasoned to the committee process and the floor process, and some pay attention, but some do not.

"It's a learn-as-you-go situation."

So while a stray possum may still waddle at night, it would have to be a little faster these days.