CHARLESTON — Amid the Christmas trappings inside the West Virginia Capitol — well-decorated trees, wreaths and cards taped on office door windows — Greg Gray is hard at work.

For most folks, the Christmas mood has wrapped them in an atmosphere of glee, but the holiday mood takes a backseat for the veteran clerk of the House of Delegates.

“It’s getting busy,” the Fayette County native mused in his second-floor office, just down from the House chamber.

“It’s typical, though, for this time of year. You get into the holidays and get all the extra stuff that brings in your personal life, and then you have all the legislative stuff.”

For Gray, this means putting the final touches on a three-volume set chronicling the exhaustive labors of the 2005 session, along with five special sessions called by new Gov. Joe Manchin.

“That took an immense amount of time,” he observed.

“We anticipate a special session or two per year, but five was extraordinary. They really were extraordinary sessions.”

About 5,000 pages of proceedings from the 60-day session and the special ones are being manually indexed.

“We go through page by page and call out the page numbers on certain action on bills, certain motions, those kinds of things members do,” he said.

“A book is only as good as the index that goes with it.”

This year ushered in a new Legislature, and that means in the second half, delegates have the option of carrying over bills that failed to get to first base in the first year.

All a delegate need do is ask that a failed measure get a rerun in the second year and Gray sees to it the proposal returns to its original introduced status and version.

“It saves a lot of paper work, saves a lot of trees,” he said. “We have over 600 carryover bills this year. They never got anywhere.”

Fewer than 2 percent of all House bills actually become law.

“But you never know, I would rather have the carryover provision and not have to reprocess all these things and reprint from scratch all that stuff,” the clerk said.

On the session’s opening day, the 600-plus carryovers will be in the hoppers, along with anywhere from 50 to 100 new ones.

Cynics may sneer that many bills are frivolous. To Gray, however, frivolity is in the eye of the beholder.

“What’s frivolous to me may not be frivolous to somebody out here it means something to,” he said.

“I’m reluctant to call a bill frivolous. Most of them don’t see the light of day or haven’t seen the light of day. But most of them are simply bills of request that are obviously introduced at the request of some group back home, or something like that.”

A case is point was the “road kill” bill that sparked many a guffaw in and out of West Virginia a few years back.

“There was a reason for that, a logical reason to get that prohibition out of the code, as far as not being able to do something under health laws, I guess, and natural resources laws, to pursue those kinds of things,” the clerk said.

There was another time in Upshur County when hogs were running helter-skelter to the chagrin of some residents.

“There was some farmer, I guess, who didn’t have his hogs fenced in and they were terrorizing the neighborhoods, so it was a problem for somebody,” he said, recalling how special legislation was crafted to address the sprinting swine.

“We consider that kind of silly today, but you know, it’s really not.”

First come, first serve doesn’t apply to delegates getting in bills on opening day, however.

“I don’t think it makes one bit of difference if it goes in the first or the last,” Gray said. “If a bill is good and it’s going to go, it’s going to go.”

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A typical session finds Gray and his beleaguered staff dealing with some 1,700 bills, but less than 10 percent will actually make it — a survival rate that generally holds up in the Senate as well.

All are directed to committee, but many never surface on the agenda, a move that shifts them to the Legislature’s graveyard for bills.

At times, it’s not always the whim of a committee chair, but there exists some pressing reason why a bill cannot be acted on, Gray pointed out.

“Maybe it depends on some federal program they have to look at first, or something that the federal government has to do, or something else has to kick in at the state level before a bill could be acted on,” the clerk said.

“There are all sorts of reasons.”

Gray sees content of the bill — not the folks a legislator knows in power — as the overriding factor in determining its fate.

“Whether a bill gets passed or not, certainly the life or death of a bill does not depend solely on its content, and it does not depend solely on the people sponsoring it,” he says.

“I think it’s a combination of both. You have to have a good idea that is salable to the membership, that it is salable to the public that something the public needs or some sector of the public needs, and you have to have someone who knows the system in order to work that bill and get it moving.”

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Gray is moving into his 11th year as clerk but has been a mainstay 32 years, having served as assistant clerk and parliamentarian. The latter role he has retained out of a love of labor.

“My first and foremost love is the parliamentarian end of the office,” he said. “Administrative duties of the office are fine. They have to be done. But my real love is the parliamentarian end of it.”

Old ideas keep resurfacing among some legislators, and for some, persistence at times pays dividends.

Years ago, a southern lawmaker wanted to compel trucks to be adorned with mud flaps, but no one initially thought much of the idea.

On the back roads, where coal trucks rumble, rocks and mud often get embedded in the big tires, then become dislodged and wind up as missiles, often finding windshields of cars as their targets.

Eventually, after 19 years of offering the same bill year in and year out, the delegate had his way, but the measure passed only after he departed the House. For him, it was a posthumous victory.

Then there was a paraplegic who served in the era before the Americans with Disabilities Act became federal law and the handicapped were left largely to fend for themselves at the Capitol.

Confined to a wheelchair, the delegate worked doggedly to get some reforms. His efforts led to special handicapped doors on the Capitol’s ground level.

“He was persistent with it,” Gray recalled.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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