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Referendum Provision Draws Fire From Equality Advocates

With the West Virginia Legislature having long refused to pass an LGBT nondiscrimination law, the fight for those protections has moved to city and town councils. (Dan Heyman)
With the West Virginia Legislature having long refused to pass an LGBT nondiscrimination law, the fight for those protections has moved to city and town councils. (Dan Heyman)
February 28, 2018

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Fairness West Virginia says a troubling referendum provision in complex home-rule legislation could be used to overturn local non-discrimination laws. House Bill 4158 is extensive, and would set a number of rules for local governments.

Andrew Schneider, the executive director of Fairness, says one part would "empower the fringe" by letting them force a referendum on any city or town ordinance. Two years ago, a bill to block local LGBT non-discrimination laws failed. He says this provision aims at the same goal.

But, Schneider says it also would make West Virginia a place where local governments are hobbled by constant second-guessing.

"This would turn West Virginia into a California, and it would only make the process of adopting municipal laws that much more arduous," he laments. "If voters are not satisfied with their elected representatives, vote them out of office."

Without a statewide LGBT non-discrimination law, Fairness has campaigned for eleven local ordinances that cover about 10 percent of the state's population. Supporters of the referendum provision argue it would allow for more public input and direct democracy.

Under HB 4158, a petition signed by the equivalent of 30 percent of the last municipal election could force a public vote on any local ordinance. That may sound like a lot of signatures, but Schneider points out that local elections have notoriously low turnout. He says, for example, all it would take to force a referendum on a Charleston ordinance would be a petition signed by 1,800 people.

"If you want direct democracy, then what's the point of having representatives?" he asks. "Voters don't necessarily have the benefit and the time to gather that information that council members have the time to do. That's why we have representative democracy."

HB 4158 looks likely to pass the house soon. Schneider says they will press for the provision to be removed through an amendment.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV