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Statehouse Beat: August lull at the Statehouse? Not this year

Used to be, it was safe to take a week off in August knowing there was little chance of anything newsworthy happening at the Statehouse.

That was probably before we all went down the rabbit hole, with the latest twist being Gov. Jim Justice’s “should I let him stay or make him go” wavering over the job status of now-former chief of staff Nick Casey.

Casey, who by all accounts performed the job admirably, had every right to be infuriated by Justice’s cover story that he had a change of heart about retaining Casey after supposedly learning that Casey’s wife -– whom he called “a beautiful little Italian girl” -– was a rock-ribbed Democrat. As Casey put it, Justice “conflated” a story that his wife, Mary, has often told to Justice and others about her childhood in Logan County, twisting it into an insurmountable point of contention with Casey.

The more likely story is that, while Justice did not initially put much weight on whether Casey is a D or R, legislative leadership certainly did.

As state Democratic chairman, Casey wasn’t exactly a firebrand, and politics was a little more civil back then, but in 2008, he and the party targeted several Republican incumbents for defeat, saying the state would be better off if they didn’t return to the Legislature. Among them were then-Delegates Mitch Carmichael and Craig Blair. Just saying.

One positive is that there should be a seamless transition from Casey, a reasoned and able moderate Democrat, to former Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, a reasoned and able moderate Republican.

As for whether the change helps or hurts Justice in pursuing future budget proposals, it’s difficult to say, since Hall was effectively sidelined in the Senate during the 2017 budget impasse because of his moderate views on tax reform.

If nothing else, replacing Hall with the short-fused, bombastic Blair stands to make Senate Finance meetings more entertaining.

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I suspect nobody ever vote or against any issue based on a resolution adopted b y a political party executive committee, and the state GOP’s opposition to the road bond amendment would have warranted little more than a news brief were it not that it played like a rebuff of Justice’s return to the Republican Party.

It also represents the work of the Grover Norquist-Koch Brothers no-new-taxes-no-matter-how-desperate-the-need far right element of the state Republican Party.

(Observers suggest that if state GOP Chairman Conrad Lucas steps down to run for Congress, there could be a bloodbath between the far right and the old -school Republicans for control of the state party.)

The proposition that the Justice administration will come back for additional taxes beyond the $130 million a year package of higher gas taxes (has anyone really noticed any difference at the pump?), DMV fees and vehicle privilege taxes enacted in June is an absurd red herring.

As new chief of staff Hall succinctly put it, when the Wall Street bond brokers ask state officials how they will pay off the road bonds, the answer, “We’ll pass some new taxes next session” would get them laughed out of Manhattan. Also, no one in their right mind would buy the bonds if they don’t have a guaranteed, dedicated revenue source built in.

Meanwhile, pay-as-you-go is fine for small projects, but $130 million a year doesn’t go far when it comes to major highways construction. (The recently completed 6.7-mile upgrade of W.Va. 10 between Logan and Man, for instance, cost nearly $198 million.)

The analogy I like to use is buying a home. Most people get a mortgage rather than opting to build a house one room at a time, as they save up enough cash.

Pay-go to build a house would be cheaper in the long run, but those early years of living in a one- or two-room residence would be pretty unbearable for most families.

Likewise, people generally don’t pay cash for vehicles, since for those of us of limited means, that would mean driving old, high-mileage clunkers. Most take out a car loan in order to afford a nicer, newer vehicle.

Another advantage of 25-year bonds is that you repay the bonds with deflated dollars over time. Assuming 2 percent annual inflation, the dollars used to make the last bond payments in 2043 will have only half the buying power of the dollars paid to the state in 2018.

It’s worth noting that the last governor to oversee passage of a road bond on the scale of the “2017 Roads to Prosperity” amendment was a Republican, Arch A. Moore Jr., in 1973.

Imagine if Republicans in 1973 had convinced voters that the state could not afford to take on a $500 million bond issue (equivalent to about $2.77 billion in today’s dollars). We’d probably still be driving down winding roads to the Fayette Station bridge instead of crossing the iconic New River Gorge Bridge.

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Finally, while I was on vacation, the Ethics Commission had a special meeting to deal with an interesting request.

Seems the state Development Office came to the commission seeking a contract exemption so it could send representatives attend the upcoming state Chamber of Commerce Business Summit at The Greenbrier resort, and also seeking –- but denied -- blanket exemptions so Development Office and state Tourism officials could attend future events, and allow the Development Office to “host” corporate site development specialists at The Greenbrier.

At issue is the Ethics Act’s prohibition on public officials receiving private gain from public contracts, with Justice being the principal owner of The Greenbrier.

After seven months in office, Justice has yet to place The Greenbrier, or most of the other 100-plus businesses he owns, into blind trusts.

Back in March, attorneys for Justice came before the Ethics Commission, which approved placing companies that operate the Glade Springs resort near Beckley and the Wintergreen ski resort in Virginia into blind trusts. At the time, the attorneys indicated they would be making frequent appearances at future commission meetings to place additional assets, including The Greenbrier, into blind trusts, as they worked out complicated trust agreements.

Since then, however, crickets ...

The potential for conflict dates back to Justice’s first day in office, when his inaugural ball was moved from its traditional Charleston locale to The Greenbrier.

According to financial disclosures from the Justice Inaugural Committee, total expenses for the inaugural activities were $2.085 million, of which $1,063,275 was paid to the Greenbrier Hotel Corp., with four payments between Jan. 11 and Feb. 2 totaling $950,000 for “entertainment and meals,” and a fifth payment of $113,275 on June 1 for “inauguration expenses.”

(The committee also made six payments totaling $908,950 to Event Production LLC, the Charleston company owned by David Dodd, for “entertainment.” Event Production also produces entertainment for The Greenbrier Classic PGA tournament.)

By comparison, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s 2013 inaugural ball, a notably more modest affair, had total expenses of $297,422, according to his inaugural committee disclosures.

Major expenses included a total of $11,349 for rental of the Clay Center, and $100,325 to Embassy Suites of Charleston for banquet services.

Public documents do not disclose other revenue produced by hosting the inaugural ball, but news accounts leading up to the event indicated that only a limited number of rooms were available at The Greenbrier, but were expected to sell out.

It’s reasonable to assume that on a typical Monday in January, The Greenbrier does not generally sell out all 710 guest rooms.

By the way, the treasurer for the Justice Inaugural Committee? You guessed it: Nick Casey.

(Casey told me there’s one positive to his getting fired: During his tenure as chief of staff, he had booked a couple of trips to Chicago on the Cardinal that he had to cancel, so now he’s got about $1,500 in Amtrak travel credits, and enough free time to finally use them.)

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

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