Statehouse Beat: Special session costs and golf ethics

Costs for the May-June special session on the budget impasse are (mostly) in, with a total cost of $856,592.

Or, roughly, the equivalent of 45 Promise scholarships, 5½ years operations of the state Women’s Commission, or renovation of eight Capitol restrooms.

It was also about $257,000 more than the 2016 budget impasse special session, which was four days shorter.

This year’s per-day cost was higher, at $40,790, compared to $35,271 a day for the 2016 special session.

House members’ costs for per-day pay and expenses were $541,242, while the Senate totaled $315,350 (Senate costs include $35,998 for pay for temporary employees).

Seven legislators had pay and expenses topping $8,000, and naturally, with one exception, all are from the Eastern Panhandle.

The top seven are: Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, $8,722 (his daughter, Delegate Saira Blair, R-Berkeley, came in at just $7,791); House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, $8,543; Delegate Jill Upson, R-Jefferson, $8,473; Sen. Charlie Trump, R-Morgan, $8,376; Delegate Ruth Rowan, R-Hampshire, $8,298; Delegate Rodney Pyles, D-Monongalia, $8,088; and Delegate John Overington, R-Berkeley, $8,021.

Pyles was an outlier, although it’s interesting that of the other four delegates from his district, the two Republicans had pay and expenses in excess of $7,000 (Delegate Cindy Frich, $7,810, and Delegate Joe Statler, $7,339), while the two other Democrats came in below $5,000 (Delegate John Williams, $4,600, and Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, $4,489). I guess some people know how to live within their means.

As in the past, legislators can opt to not turn in expenses, as is tradition for the Kanawha delegation, and as several other legislators chose to do this special session. However, they cannot pre-emptively turn down the $150-per-day pay for each day they attend the session, although several have indicated they will return the money to the state treasury, or donate it to charity.

If you’re keeping score, the two budget impasses have cost taxpayers $1.45 million, and the presumably inevitable 2018 impasse has the potential to put the first two to shame.

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One of the earliest contentious Ethics Commission advisory opinions came in 1991, when the then-toddler-age commission ruled that legislators could not participate in a free golf outing sponsored by a local Chamber of Commerce because the greens fees of $39 per player exceeded the $25 cap on gifts that public officials may accept under the state Ethics Act.

That ruling over $14 seems positively quaint today, given that a bunch of public officials took part in the Greenbrier Classic Pro-Am on July 5.

According to the Classic’s website, fees to participate in the Pro-Am were just a tad higher than the $39 that the Ethics Commission deemed out-of-bounds ethically — at $17,000 per person, or $50,000 per three-player team.

Public officials participating in the Pro-Am, listed in order of tee times, were: Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson; state Superintendent of Schools Steve Paine; Justice chief of staff Nick Casey (joined by U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito, who are not subject to state ethics laws); Gov. Jim Justice; Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher; Lottery Commission Director Alan Larrick; Justice communications director Butch Antolini; Justice senior counsel Joey Garcia; Justice press secretary Grant Herring; and Justice general counsel Brian Abraham.

Justice and Larrick also participated in another pre-Classic Pro-Am tournament on July 3, but it had more affordable fees of $5,000 per player, and $15,000 per three-person team.

There are a couple of exceptions in the Ethics Act to the $25 limit on gifts, including one allowing public officials to accept reasonable expenses for travel, meals and lodging to participate in pre-approved conferences, meetings or seminars. However, public officials are barred from accepting other amenities that may be offered at the conference venues — with free rounds of golf specifically prohibited.

Public officials may also accept admission to sporting or other events valued at more than $25 if they are performing an official or ceremonial duty at said event, i.e., throwing out a first pitch, taking part in a pre-game coin toss, crowning the homecoming queen, waving a starting flag, etc.

Asked for comment, Herring said Gov. Justice personally paid for administration staff and for Carmichael to participate in the Pro-Am, and cited another exemption in the Ethics Act for gifts that are “purely private and personal in nature.”

Herring said Justice also invited House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, and Senate and House Minority Leaders Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, and Tim Miley, D-Harrison, but they were unable to participate.

I’m not a lawyer, and apparently none of the nine golfers sought guidance from the Ethics Commission on participating in the Pro-Am, but that strikes me as a pretty broad interpretation of the “private and personal” gift exception, which was designed to allow spouses and immediate family members of public officials to give gifts valued at more than $25 without potentially triggering an ethics violation.

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Finally, speaking of Justice, he made a fairly dramatic change of strategy in the past week, abandoning his “mediator-in-chief” persona with a series of attacks on the Legislature, blaming them, alternately, for failing to turn the state around by rejecting his revenue plan, for starting off the 2017-18 budget year with an immediate $11 million deficit, for a CNBC report ranking the state’s business climate as 50th in the nation, and most remarkably, attacking the Senate for awarding a $860,000 contract to renovate eight Senate restrooms.

Renovating the Capitol’s 34 restrooms, many of which have original late-1920s/early-1930s plumbing and fixtures, has been on the General Services Division radar for about eight years, but has been on hold since 2012, when the low bid for the contract came in $3.4 million over the $6 million budgeted for the project.

The $100,00-plus cost per restroom is probably a reality of renovating public facilities that are roughly 80 years old and that are not ADA compliant, while also maintaining the architectural integrity of the Capitol building.

However, Justice knows that the idea of the Senate wasting money on “gold-plated toilets” plays well with the public at large. During the gubernatorial campaign, Justice backers used a similar ploy to blast Bill Cole for wasteful spending as Senate president, including a $37,000 sound system that was portrayed in campaign ads as some sort of high-end stereo system in the president’s office. It actually was the audio system for Senate chambers.

Political observers suggest that Justice is essentially giving up attempting to try to work with the current legislative leadership, and is laying the groundwork for bringing new faces into the Legislature after the 2018 elections, potentially giving him a better chance to get his initiatives enacted in the 2019 session.

In his announcement June 21 that he was allowing the “kick the can” 2017-18 budget to become law without his signature, Justice suggested he might campaign against incumbents in 2018.

Justice certainly has the resources to put together a substantial PAC, and indications are that 2018 won’t be as hospitable to Republican legislative candidates as the 2014 or 2016 election cycles were. In all likelihood, the Legislature will have slogged through a third consecutive extended special session over a budget impasse, to the further consternation of the voting public, there’s no reason to think the massive opposition to proposed GOP health care cuts will have waned, Republicans won’t be able to effectively use Obama or Hillary as campaign bogeymen, and who knows what sort of dire straits Trump may be in, if he’s still in the White House in 2018.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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