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Warmer weather is headed to the region, but this snowman of a worker, complete with hard hat and yellow vest, remained Monday. Built over the weekend, the snowman stands on the south steps at the Capitol. That area has been closed for construction for more than a year as crews replace steps and concrete on the plaza.

Snowman working

Justice takes WV income tax plan into his own hands in first town hall meeting

As legislative leaders waited to read the fine print, Gov. Jim Justice pledged Monday that his plan to repeal the West Virginia income tax will trigger a jobs boom and higher wages.

Increases in sales, luxury, soft drink and tobacco taxes would help cover the gap caused by eliminating income taxes, which generate $2.1 billion, about 43% of West Virginia’s annual revenue, the governor said. There is no downside to the plan, he added in the first of a series of planned virtual town hall meetings.

“I see none because, in the first phase, I would cut half the income tax on everybody in the state of West Virginia and, in the meantime, sit back and let the growth take us there,” Justice said. “If the growth doesn’t come about, stay right there. You stay right there. It won’t cost us anything except a tremendous amount of people who will come and bring goodness to this state.”

Justice said he opposes raising the food tax.

“We’ve got people out here that are still hurting in a lot of different ways,” he said.

When the town hall session began at 3 p.m., communications directors for the legislative chambers said neither House nor Senate leaders had seen the bill containing the governor’s income tax proposal.

Previous incremental tax cuts were not immediate enough, Justice said.

“My goal is to lower your taxes now,” the governor said. “That is my goal. There’s a million different ways that this can be done.”

Justice reiterated points from his Feb. 13 State of the State address, saying that, if the government receives surplus revenue, such as federal pandemic relief money, it should be put into a “bucket” and used to backfill the budget. Justice called it a second Rainy Day Fund that would make West Virginia appealing to bondholders.

“We could go one of two ways,” the governor said. “We could just spend the money — we could just throw it away. We have the opportunity to put the money aside and establish something. ... From the standpoint of our bondholders, I really and truly believe that is something they would welcome, and welcome immediately.”

A Huntington woman asked the governor if he expects her to do 95% or 100% of her grocery shopping in Ohio, as a result of an increased sales tax.

“You can go buy your stuff in Ohio,” Justice answered. “We’re going to have all the people here.”

A Beckley woman asked if there would be budget cuts or a loss in services to cover the loss of income tax revenue. Justice responded, “No.”

“We want to be prudent,” the governor said. “We want to run our state agencies the very best we possibly can, but we sure don’t want to cut services to achieve this.”

Justice said Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and other Senate leaders told him they could find $21 million in cuts that “are not going to hurt us in West Virginia, that we can do without.”

During a question-and-answer session, the governor was asked about House Bill 2003, which passed that chamber Friday. It would limit the governor’s power during a state of emergency.

Justice said the bill would affect “future governors.”

House Bill 2003 would require legislative action to extend a state of emergency declaration beyond 60 days. Whether that would apply to the declaration Justice issued March 16 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a point of contention.

Justice said he doesn’t want to “get into a food fight” over emergency powers.

“For future governors, I would hope we wouldn’t strip away their powers to act, because you elected them to act,” Justice said.

The governor said he plans as many town hall meetings as it takes “where you can hear from me about what I know or what [West Virginia Revenue Secretary] Dave Hardy knows.”

The next town hall event is planned for Wednesday evening, Justice said, but he didn’t provide details.

“This is a hot topic around our state and, no question, it ought to be a topic that is blazing hot,” the governor said. “The reason I say that is because of the level of importance it has.”

WV leads nation in lingering outages following ice storms, continuing long history of outage problems

West Virginia has a long history with long power outages.

The latest episode continued well into Monday, 11 days after the first of two ice storms that triggered a peak of 97,000 outages among Appalachian Power customers, leaving thousands scrambling in Southwestern West Virginia as they struggled to cook food and get warm as temperatures stubbornly stayed in the 20s and teens.

Winter storms caused power grids across the United States to fail last week. The deep freeze left more than 4 million people grappling with outages last week in Texas alone.

But it was West Virginia that had the highest total number of outages and percentage of outages among customers throughout the country Sunday and Monday, according to national outage trackers powered by Data Fusion Solutions and Bluefield Studios LLC.

West Virginia still had more than 26,000 outages Monday afternoon, more than any other state, and its statewide percentage of customers without power, 2.67%, was more than twice as much as the state with the next highest clip, Mississippi.

The biggest obstacle for Appalachian Power in restoring service has been ice, company spokesman Phil Moye said. He added that ice storms are unique in their ability to damage trees and electric infrastructure with added weight.

As more trees gave way under the burden of ice, Moye said, additional electric infrastructure is damaged and outages occurred. The second ice storm, on Feb. 15, largely in areas where ice already lay heavy on trees, lines and poles, made the damage worse.

“As long as trees are around, this type of storm is going to cause damage, not only to electric infrastructure but to anything within the trees’ paths as they fall,” Moye said.

Manpower mobilization has not been an issue, according to Moye, who reported that Appalachian Power had 600 workers from outside the company’s service area on site before the Feb. 11 and Feb. 15 ice storms. They came from fellow American Electric Power subsidiaries in Ohio and Indiana, and have deployed about 2,300 workers in the service restoration effort in ice-damaged counties, including more than 500 tree-clearing workers.

But Appalachian Power reported Monday that there were still at least 1,350 locations where repairs were needed, with assessment teams estimating that as many as 600 broken poles and roughly 2,400 spans of wire must be replaced to restore all customers to service.

Painfully long delays in power restoration are nothing new in West Virginia.

In 2011, the state Public Service Commission put into effect rules for electric reliability requirements in response to power outages caused by a December 2009 winter storm. They required utilities to submit annual reliability reports to the commission that included outage duration and frequency data, their number of sustained power interruptions and what caused them, and planned improvements for utilities’ worst-performing circuits.

In 2012, a derecho left 1.6 million West Virginians without power, some for two weeks, and Hurricane Sandy also caused significant outages in the state. The following year, in an order that cited those two storms, the Public Service Commission ordered all electric utilities to file time-cycle-based right-of-way vegetation control programs and status reports on planned improvements to their storm response procedures within six months.

“The Commission expects that the electric utilities’ efforts to adhere to the new Electric Rules and the implementation of cycle-based vegetation clearing programs will significantly improve reliability throughout the state,” the commission wrote in its 2013 order.

But a Gazette-Mail review of seven years of electric reliability data for utilities nationwide from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows that outages grew longer and more frequent for customers of West Virginia’s utilities since 2013, even outpacing national rises in those categories.

Appalachian Power’s System Average Interruption Duration Index, a reliability indicator measuring average yearly duration of outages, was 702 minutes, including major event days (when outages exceed the usual averages for a given day, like during severe weather) and 596 minutes, excluding them in 2013.

That means the average Appalachian Power customer was without power for nearly 12 hours during the year when including days when severe weather or other factors drove outage metrics up.

In 2019, the most recent year for which U.S. Energy Information Administration data was available, those averages rose to 900 minutes and 650 minutes, with and without major event days, more than three and nearly five times the national averages for those respective categories.

Appalachian Power’s System Average Interruption Duration indices with and without major event days for its West Virginia customers have consistently been among of the nation’s highest, and the utility has had one of the longest average outage duration measures when excluding major event days in six of the past seven years, finishing with the highest such average in the country among investor-owned utilities each year from 2014 through 2016.

The utility’s System Average Interruption Frequency indices with and without major event days, which measure average yearly frequency of outages, reached their highest totals among all seven years for which data was available in 2019: 3.317 and 2.883 respectively, meaning that is how many outages the average customer experienced during the year. Both totals were more than twice the national averages in those respective categories.

Appalachian Power moved in 2014 to a cycle-based vegetation management approach in which all circuits are managed end to end every six years, which Moye said was “dramatically different” from the usual method of managing vegetation along lines based on the worst trouble areas.

The approach has yielded progress, according to Moye, who said outages within the company’s rights of way have decreased 61%.

Responding to Appalachian Power’s high 2019 System Average Interruption Duration Index, Moye noted that West Virginia is the third most forested state in the country and that Appalachian Power serves a largely rural population in mountainous, heavily forested terrain.

“[R]educing instances of tree-related outages will always be a challenge,” Moye said, adding that Appalachian Power spends more than $53 million each year to manage vegetation on and adjacent to its rights of way. It also invests in “smart circuit” technology that speeds restoration by pinpointing an outage location and automatically switches customers outside the damaged area back in service. He said more than 20 of the company’s West Virginia distribution circuits has that technology.

At a November 2020 status conference, commission Chairman Charlotte R. Lane asked Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power representatives if they knew how West Virginia’s outage duration and frequency data compared to those of other states.

“[I]t’s more unfavorable,” said Brian Martin, a support manager for Appalachian Power. “[Y]ou’ve just got a pretty dramatic difference in the terrain, the circuitry, the customer base, the density of customers, the amount of load that the customers use. It’s just sort of a different territory from some of the surrounding states.”

In response to the commission’s request at the status conference to submit new reliability index targets, Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power earlier this month offered targets less stringent than the existing ones they have been failing to meet. But they added that they did not recommend them, saying the existing targets should remain in place.

Climate change has been a factor in decreasing the electric reliability of West Virginia’s electric utilities, including FirstEnergy subsidiaries Mon Power and Potomac Edison (whose indices have not been as poor as Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power), and utilities across the nation since 2013.

Of the 285 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters since 1980, 119 came from 2010 through 2019, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

An analysis last year by the science news organization Climate Central showed a 67% increase in major power outages from weather-related events since 2000.

So climate trends suggest that West Virginia’s electric reliability will be tested increasingly often in the coming years, making the stakes even higher for the state’s utilities to improve their reliability metrics.

“I would hope, Ms. Chairman, that, you know, in four or five years ... that we would start to see our performance more consistently being between the optimal and minimal line,” Martin told Lane during the November status conference. “And then we can talk about, you know — it’d be many years out, but maybe making them a little more stringent as we go along. But right now, we’re only meeting them sporadically. It makes sense to leave them where they’re at.”

National charter school groups critical of WV’s online charter school bill

National charter school groups say the charter school bill that flew through the West Virginia House of Delegates lacks sufficient regulation of charter schools, especially online ones, and could discriminate against special education students.

“The bill includes a cap for virtual schools of approximately 28,000 students/year, a number far too high to manage or ensure quality,” the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said in a statement. “The West Virginia Senate should incorporate caps allowing a virtual school to grow only after it has demonstrated agreed-upon levels of student performance.”

The House passed the legislation, House Bill 2012, a week ago. Passage came just days into this year’s legislative session.

The Senate Education Committee has put the bill on its agenda for 2 p.m. Tuesday. You can listen online to the meeting on the Legislature’s website.

House Bill 2012 would legalize fully online charter schools in the state — an attempt to overturn the West Virginia Board of Education’s current ban on them.

Studies on charter schools nationally have found they perform about the same, if not better in some areas, than public schools. But the track record for specifically online charter schools is different.

“Students who switched to virtual charter schools experienced large, negative effects in math and [English Language Arts] that were sustained across time. These effects were consistently of magnitude that warrants serious concern and further investigation,” wrote professors and a doctoral student at the universities of Notre Dame, Washington and Kentucky in a peer-reviewed study published last year.

That study was on Indiana schools, but it’s just one in a line of studies stretching back years, looking at states like Ohio and the nation as a whole.

West Virginia’s bill would allow one statewide virtual charter school that could enroll up to 10% of all current public school students in the state, plus a local virtual charter school in each of the 55 counties. Those could each enroll a further 10% of each county’s public school enrollment.

Every public school student who transfers to these online charter schools equals less funding for the county public school system. And with their track record, these online charter schools may not improve student performance.

“The data from virtual charter schools, again, has not been great,” said Veronica Brooks-Uy, interim vice president for policy at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Brooks-Uy said she thinks these online schools are an “incredibly important” option for families, but recommended starting with lower enrollment ceilings and allowing virtual charters to grow in size based on how well they perform.

“Some of these virtual schools can be like 5,000-plus [students], because there are literally no limits in terms of physical space,” she said of online charter schools in other states. “And, so, what we have seen is that, unfortunately, what that can sometimes lead to is sort of a too-big-to-fail type of situation.”

“Even if they are having issues, an authorizer may be reluctant to hold them accountable because there are so many students involved,” she said.

Authorizers are the organizations that actually approve or deny applications from groups that want to start charter schools. If authorizers allow a charter school to open, they also help oversee its performance.

West Virginia’s initial charter school law, passed in 2019, generally makes county boards of education the only authorizers.

This year’s bill would allow more authorizers, including a couple that could override those county school boards. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools supports this move.

But this year’s bill also crosses out part of the law that gave authorizers the ability to quickly close a charter school if it failed to meet generally accepted standards of fiscal management or failed to meet performance expectations. The authorizer could still shut down the school, but only after its up-to-five-year-long contract period expired.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said that would mean “undermining the law’s commitment to accountability.”

“There have to be very clear criteria in place for when you would revoke a charter contract,” said Brooks-Uy of the other national group. “We’re just saying that one of those criteria should at least be financial mismanagement.”

House Education Committee Chairman Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, said he believes the bill would still allow for a quick closure in instances of financial issues.

As for the 10% enrollment ceiling, he said he thinks that figure was “arbitrary.” He said he doubts that ceiling will be reached.

“We could always tweak it, but we didn’t want to restrict them if they did have the 10%,” he said.

The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools has raised concerns with a section of the bill that says a virtual charter school can’t enroll a special education student unless the student and a parent first meet with the student’s individualized education plan (IEP) team or its equivalent “and discuss whether enrollment in the virtual public charter school is an appropriate placement for the student.”

The center has gone as far as to call that provision illegal. Paul O’Neill, an attorney who is also a co-founder and senior fellow at the center, said this requirement runs the risk of having special education students be “counseled out” from attending these schools.

“The language that I saw proposed in the bill seems to create a hurdle for kids with disabilities to attend one particular category of charter schools,” he said. “And that hurdle wouldn’t apply to other kids. I think it’s a problematic hurdle for anybody because the emphasis of our special education laws is we’re trying to provide access for all kids to public schools.”

Instead, O’Neill recommends “you admit the child and then you figure out, OK, are there challenges to how the child might be met in this particular school?”

Then, the school would work to provide supports to help overcome those challenges -- and would most often be able to do so, O'Neill said.

He also said the bill needs to be more robust generally about how special education students will be treated.

“I don’t think it restricts them,” Ellington said of the provision. “I think it was just being cautious to say, make sure it’s an appropriate venue for that child.”

US tops 500,000 virus deaths, matching the toll of 3 wars

The COVID-19 death toll in the United States topped 500,000 Monday, a staggering number that all but matches the number of Americans killed in World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined.

The United States recorded an estimated 405,000 deaths in World War II, 58,000 in the Vietnam War and 36,000 in the Korean War.

President Joe Biden held a sunset moment of silence and a candle-lighting ceremony at the White House and ordered American flags lowered at federal buildings for the next five days.

“We have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow,” Biden said. “We have to resist viewing each life as a statistic or a blur.”

Monday’s grim milestone, as recorded by Johns Hopkins University, comes as states redouble efforts to get the coronavirus vaccine into arms after last week’s winter weather closed clinics, slowed vaccine deliveries and forced tens of thousands of people to miss their shots.

Despite the rollout of vaccines since mid-December, a closely watched model from the University of Washington projects more than 589,000 dead by June 1.

The U.S. toll is, by far, the highest reported in the world, accounting for 20 percent of the nearly 2.5 million coronavirus deaths globally, although the true numbers are thought to be significantly greater, in part because many cases were overlooked, especially early in the outbreak.

The first known deaths from the virus in the United States were in early February 2020. It took four months to reach the first 100,000 deaths. The toll hit 200,000 in September and 300,000 in December, then took just over a month to go from 300,000 to 400,000 and another month to climb from 400,000 to 500,000.

Average daily deaths and cases have plummeted in the past few weeks. Virus deaths have fallen from more than 4,000 reported on some days in January to an average of fewer than 1,900 per day.

But experts warn that dangerous variants could cause the trend to reverse itself. And some experts say not enough Americans have been inoculated for the vaccine to be making much of a difference.

Instead, the drop-off in deaths and cases has been attributed to the passing of the holidays; the cold and bleak days of midwinter, when many people stay home; and better adherence to mask rules and social distancing.

Dr. Ryan Stanton, an emergency room physician in Lexington, Kentucky, who has treated scores of COVID-19 patients, said he never thought the U.S. deaths would be so high.

“I was one of those early ones that thought this may be something that may hit us for a couple months,” Stanton said. “I definitely thought we would be done with it before we got into the fall. And I definitely didn’t see it heading off into 2021.”

Kristy Sourk, an intensive-care nurse at Hutchinson Regional Medical Center in Hutchinson, Kansas, said she is encouraged by the declining caseload and progress in vaccinating people, but “I know we are so far from over.”

People “are still dying, and families are still isolated from their loved ones who are unable to be with them so that is still pretty heart-wrenching,” she said.

Snow, ice and weather-related power outages closed some vaccination sites and held up shipments across the nation.