Statehouse Beat: Road bond proposal in trouble after Justice flip

Jim, you done done it now.

I’m talking about the continuing fallout on Gov. Jim Justice’s party flip, and its implications for changes of passing the “2017 Roads to Prosperity” amendment on Oct. 7.

Although he believes passage of the road bond amendment is critical — having said if it fails, the state is “history” — Justice has negated his ability to lead the campaign, having outraged Democrats who supported him in 2016, and received what could charitably be described as a lukewarm response from state Republican leaders.

It’s significant that the “Jim’s Promise” tour, in which Justice was going to various localities to highlight road projects to be funded if the $1.6 billion road bond referendum passes, has been on hiatus since he announced he was flipping back to the GOP.

This comes at a time when the vibe at the Statehouse is that the bond referendum is in serious jeopardy.

Road bond amendments are historically a hard sell in the state. Over the past four decades, there have been four road bond referendums, and three of the four were rejected.

There’s a basket of voters, probably 30 percent or so, who will actively oppose any bond issue: Just consider the counties with crumbling, Third World schools that can’t pass school levies because a majority of voters refuse to pay a few pennies more on their property taxes.

It’s uncertain whether Justice’s party switch will placate Republicans rumored to be gearing up to actively oppose the referendum.

Meanwhile, with less than two months until the election, there are no political action committees organized to date to raise funds and promote passage of the road bond amendment, an ominous sign now that Justice is unable to effectively lead the campaign.

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In his Aug. 4 news conference to discuss his party flip, Justice talked about his close ties with the Trump family, indicating that President Donald Trump had invited him to the White House “three weeks ago,” and then had him back a week later for five hours of meetings.

Flight records for the state’s King Air plane appear to sync up with Justice’s comments.

The King Air flew from Lewisburg to Washington, D.C., and back on July 12, and repeated that trip on July 19. (Each time, the King Air flew from Yeager Airport to Lewisburg the day before — a bit of extra expense that comes from having a governor who doesn’t live in the governor’s mansion.)

In the July 19 flight, Justice traveled alone (except for a ubiquitous State Police trooper on security detail), but on July 12, passengers listed on the flight log include the governor’s daughter, Dr. Jill Justice, and a “Russell Steven Loy.” The governor’s office did not respond to a request to verify that was Steve Loy, longtime agent and former caddy for PGA golfer Phil Mickelson.

(Loy’s connection to Justice: Loy is president of Lagardere Sports, which is the management consultant firm for the Greenbrier Classic PGA tournament.)

The governor’s office also did not respond to a request to determine if Loy reimbursed the state for the cost of the taxpayer-funded flight to Washington to meet the duffer-in-chief.

(That Jill Justice, president of The Greenbrier resort, and Loy, major consultant/advisor on the Greenbrier Classic, accompanied Justice to meet with Trump certainly provides fodder for those who buy into the rumor that Justice is interested in getting Trump to buy, or invest in, The Greenbrier.)

For those struggling to come up with any sort of rational explanation for Justice’s flip, I think the Trump connection is key.

If Justice simply felt Democrats in the Legislature had abandoned him, a more rational option would have been to become an independent.

Numbers of state voters registered with no party affiliation has surged in recent years, and being an independent would have been a perfect fit for Justice, who, shortly after winning the gubernatorial election, commented, “It doesn’t matter to me if you’re a Republican or Democrat. All I want to do is good things for West Virginia.”

Going independent would have angered Democrats who supported Justice, but not to the level of outrage that the switch to the GOP has caused — outrage to the level where a number of Democrats are indicating they plan to vote against the road bond to spite Justice.

In the past week, my conjecture has become that Trump — desperate for a “win” of any kind, given his abject failure to get any significant legislation passed in Congress, his cratering approval ratings and the specter of the Russian investigation closing in — pressured Justice to change parties.

Otherwise, why would Trump have spoken at length about a small, relatively insignificant state during his press briefing Thursday?

Trump mentioned his visit to West Virginia, commenting, “They are doing great as a state.” (Delusional much?)

Trump then delved into Justice’s party flip, referring to him only as Jim, “the great governor of West Virginia,” and stating, “He just left the Democrat Party and became a Republican, which was a great moment. Hasn’t happened in many years. So we’re very, very happy with what’s happened ... It’s been an incredible six months.”

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Other than the flights to Washington, Justice used the state plane 10 times from March to the present.

Most of the trips sync up with either “Save Our State” rallies Justice held to promote his ill-fated plan to set aside $105 million for economic development and promotion, or for his presently-in-hiatus “Jim’s Promise” tour to promote the road bond.

One exception is April 24, when Justice flew alone (again, save for a state trooper) from Yeager Airport to Blacksburg, Virginia, and back. It was also the only flight he made that went directly from and to Charleston. With all other flights, the King Air made side trips to Lewisburg to pick up or deplane Justice.

I count at least 20 times that the King Air has made side trips to Lewisburg, including four occasions when the plane flew in the day before and parked overnight at the Greenbrier Valley Airport, presumably to facilitate an early departure the next day.

By my count, that’s about 2,300 extra air miles, and assuming a 35-minute flight time, an extra 11.6 hours in the air. At the $1,400 per flight hour fee for use of the King Air, those side trips have cost an extra $16,240, not counting lodging costs for the pilots.

Justice’s office did not respond to a request for information about the trip to Blacksburg.

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While there has been speculation about whether any cabinet secretaries or top aides would leave the Justice administration in light of the flip, as of Friday, only one has filed for an employment exemption with the Ethics Commission, necessary to pursue a job search: Joey Garcia, senior policy counsel.

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Finally, from the “history repeats itself” (unfortunately) files: Regarding the wrongful termination lawsuits filed by 10 former employees of the secretary of state’s office who were part of a 16-employee (15 Democrats) purge when Mac Warner took office in January, Charleston lawyer Larry Kopelman recalled a very similar situation in the 1980s involving the legendary A. James Manchin.

Upon taking office as state treasurer in 1985, Manchin fired 15 employees who had worked for the previous treasurer, Larrie Bailey, whom Manchin defeated in the May 1984 Democratic primary, including 11 employees who had actively campaigned for Bailey.

Like Warner, Manchin initially said the firings were necessary to streamline the office — but like Warner, Manchin replaced them and added more new employees, growing the office from 64 to 89 employees.

In deposition, Kopelman recalled, Manchin was asked why he had fired all those employees, and he replied, “I had to. I had to make room for my people.”

Soon after, news accounts show, Manchin agreed to settle the suits for $120,000 — or about $250,000 in today’s dollars.

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

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