Statehouse Beat: Billionaires Trump, Justice not so similar

Phil Kabler

In November, voters eschewed conventional wisdom, putting billionaire businessmen with no prior political experience into the White House and governor’s mansion.

Six months into their terms, could we be seeing signs of buyer’s remorse?

At 36 percent approval, President Donald Trump has the lowest approval rating of any U.S. president in the 70-year history of presidential polling.

Meanwhile, in Morning Consult polls conducted in April and July, Gov. Jim Justice’s approval ratings among West Virginia voters fell a total of 17 percent, dropping him from the 15th most popular governor in the U.S. to 34th.

What can we make of this? First of all, from my perspective, other than being billionaires, the two men seem to have very little in common.

Trump flaunts his wealth; Justice lives comparatively modestly, even driving himself to the Capitol from his home, a non-opulent one-story rancher in Lewisburg.

Trump, meanwhile, seems to have very little interest in or comprehension of policy details. He praised the House version of the health care repeal and replace bill as a great plan in a Rose Garden ceremony, then subsequently declared it to be “mean” and called on the Senate to revise it, before demanding that the existing law simply be repealed outright.

In this week’s New York Times interview, Trump seemed to lack a basic understanding of even what health insurance is, describing something that sounded much more like life insurance.

By contrast, Justice was fully engaged in the state budget negotiations, acting at one point as mediator-in-chief, negotiating with the various political factions in the Legislature. He also displayed a thorough knowledge of the budget process, and could immediately tell you how a proposed fraction of a percent increase or decrease in the sales tax or income tax would affect revenue numbers.

In six months, Trump has had no major legislative victories. While Justice had many defeats — the Save Our State development fund, teacher pay raises, increased funding for tourism promotion — he gained a significant victory in getting the Legislature to approve $140 million a year in tax and fee increases for the Road Fund, and he could have a major victory if he convinces voters on Oct. 7 to approve using that money to underwrite $1.6 billion of road bonds.

The biggest difference between the two men, in my opinion, is empathy. Trump seems to have empathy for no one but himself, willingly throwing associates and aides under the bus to save his hide, and willing to cause harm to millions of supporters simply to achieve that elusive legislative “win.”

Justice is all about empathy. Newly in office, he instructed his aides to designate $300 million of state spending cuts, but once he saw the harm those cuts would cause, could not bring himself to implement them.

From his inaugural address, in which he displayed the ax and tackle box he carries to remind him of the state’s poorest citizens, Justice’s driving motivation has been to take no action that would harm average West Virginians.

True, while all governors have some visions for how they think they can make the state better, most have other motivations, most frequently including attaining higher political office down the road.

While Justice’s administration has had a circus-like atmosphere at times, and while there have been lingering issues with delays in getting his taxes paid and getting his assets into blind trusts, it obviously pales in comparison to the continual crisis mode that has been the White House for the past six months.

Certainly, of the two leaders, one has to believe Justice has the better chance to rebuild his approval rating, which as of July still remained above water at 51 percent.

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No one likes to move old furniture into a new house, and agencies moving into the brand-spanking new, $34 million renovated Capitol complex Building 3 are taking that to heart, with a buying spree of new office décor.

Capitol Business Interiors has been a prime benefactor of the move, billing the state for $3.14 million over the past six weeks to provide furnishings and construct “cube farms” in the iconic office building that many still call the DMV building from the five decades that the agency was located on the building’s first floor.

General Services Division has the largest tab to date, at $1,223,099 for “demountable partitions,” i.e. non-permanent walls, for conference rooms and common areas on all eight floors of the building.

CBI has billed the Development Office for $919,223 (That order includes $49,625 alone for office chairs, lounge chairs and sofas); the Division of Personnel for $554,635; and the Division of Labor $446,212.

There likely will be more expenses to come, with other agencies, including Tourism and Workforce West Virginia, not set to move into Building 3 until August.

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Finally, Delegate Rodney Pyles, D-Monongalia, apparently was not happy with last week’s item on special session costs, which noted that he was the only non-Eastern Panhandle legislator to collect more than $8,000 in per-day pay and expenses during the 21-day budget impasse.

Pyles evidently posted an item on Facebook claiming my figures were erroneous — something I was unaware of until he sent an email apologizing, saying he had verified that the amounts were correct.

However, he said the account gave the impression he was living “high on the hog,” or at least higher than two fellow Democrat delegates from the district, each of whom logged pay and expenses of less than $5,000.

“We get $131 per day for expenses, regardless of where we stay or how much we eat,” Pyles wrote. “I stay at a hotel where I get a special rate of $91 ($102.83 with tax) including free breakfast. That leaves $28.17 for meals. Lunch can be had in the Capitol cafeteria for $5 or $6 (soup and salad) or at the nearby Wendy’s. That leaves about $22.00 for dinner. Anything above that is not covered by the per-diem and is not reimbursed.”

(Pyles deserves credit for not opting for the most common way of stretching expense payments — having lobbyists pay for meals )

Pyles also noted that he had perfect attendance for the special session, while on any given day, as few as four and as many as 48 of the 100 delegates were absent, with absences helping his colleagues keep their totals for pay and expenses lower.

Which puts legislators at a quandary: If they attend on days when no votes are to be taken (13 of the 21 days in the House), they can be accused of collecting pay and expenses for nothing, but if they skip days, they face criticism for failing to adequately represent their constituents.

(The Senate, to its credit, had a couple of days of quorum calls that required the attendance of only two senators, while it was waiting on House action on bills.)

Meanwhile, Pyles, in his email, provided one insight as to why his expenses are somewhat higher: “I always arrive the day before a session and leave the day after because it simplifies checking in and out of the hotel with all the baggage, and I don’t like driving late at night or early in the morning — one evening session ended at 9:10 p.m.”

Indeed, the final full day of the session, on June 16, went until 11:37 p.m. in the House, and past midnight in the Senate.

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

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