Last week was an eye-opener at the Legislature.
Not because Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, compared vaccine mandates to Nazi Germany.
Not because Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, got so upset with the shady, secret, closed-door backroom dealings going on that he blurted out a curse word on the Senate floor.
Not because Senate Republicans carved up Kanawha County to the point it looks like Leroy Brown after the bar fight.
We know Democrats are a superminority in the Legislature, but we learned last week that moderate Republicans are an even smaller superminority.
Based on votes against the worse of two gerrymandering Senate redistricting maps and against the vaccine mandate bill that gives those opposed to getting a shot a free pass, we can conclude there are only seven moderate Republicans left in the Senate: Sens. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel; Maroney; David Stover, R-Wyoming; Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha; Charlie Trump, R-Morgan; Ryan Weld, R-Brooke; and Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, who missed the special session (more on that momentarily).
That leaves 16 ultra-conservative Republicans in the Senate, meaning that on any issue, they only need to peel off two votes (or one vote when a member is absent, as they did with Stover voting for the mandates bill) to pass any legislation they desire.
The vaccination exemption bill is a classic example of this Legislature bowing to a vocal minority, in the face of strong opposition from the state Chamber of Commerce, dozens of major employers, hospitals and health care providers, the latter fearing the legislation could put federal Medicare and Medicaid payments at risk.
(Which prompted Blair’s incredibly crude, insensitive and entirely false Nazi reference, saying, “I think this harkens back to Nazi Germany. Our federal government is using federal dollars to coerce citizens to be obedient to the state.”)
On top of that, according to the Department of Health and Human Resources, 856,915 of the 1.43 million West Virginians 18 or older are fully vaccinated, meaning that for them, employer mandates are not an issue. That leaves a vocal minority of about 575,665 unvaccinated adults in the state. (Down only slightly from the 588,000 West Virginians that Gov. Jim Justice said needed to be vaccinated when he launched what became his Babydog incentive sweepstakes in May.)
Given that the vaccines have been available for coming up on a year, and given they’ve been readily available to anyone who wants them since the spring, and given that we experienced the worst spike of the pandemic to date in September, and given that Justice has given away $1.8 million of prizes in his vaccination incentive sweepstakes and takes to virtual airwaves three times a week to beg, plea and cajole people to get their shots, we can presume that these half-million-plus folks have immutable philosophical or political opposition to being vaccinated.
In other words, with passage of the wide-open vaccination exemption bill, the supermajority in the Legislature was playing to the whims of a minority of West Virginians, while ignoring the wishes of the majority, many of whom would prefer to not be around unvaccinated individuals, and while also ignoring concerns of business operators, physicians and lawyers.
Or as Blair put it in a less-quoted line from his floor speech: “I think what we’re doing here today is the right thing to do, regardless of what the doctors and lawyers tell us.”
Perfect encapsulation of the know-nothingism that pervades conservative Republicans in the Legislature.
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The biggest losers of the Senate’s truly impressive gerrymandering of Kanawha County will be residents of metro Charleston.
Currently, three senators representing two districts — the 8th and the 17th — reside in Charleston (unlike our governor). Prior to the 2011 redistricting, it was commonplace to have four senators from Charleston.
If the 2021 plan isn’t overturned as unconstitutional, after 2022, the current number could drop thanks to a map that plucks out the majority of the city and puts it in a district with the hinterlands of northern Putnam, southeastern Jackson, Roane and Clay counties.
Reaching down and grabbing a strongly Democratic, and by West Virginia standards, racially diverse urban community, and putting it with very rural, very white, and very politically conservative counties, can’t possibly pass constitutional muster, but we’ll see.
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Years back, then-Sen. Charlotte Pritt, D-Kanawha, took a lot of heat for missing a vote on the budget bill when the extended session for the budget dragged on for an unusually long time and overlapped with a Caribbean vacation she had previously scheduled.
Her missing that vote even dogged her into her 1996 gubernatorial campaign, when attack ads made it look like she was derelict of duty.
Cut to the present day when Nelson missed the entire eight-day special session for what we understand was a vacation trip to Europe.
Nelson could have spoken intelligently and rationally against the majority’s gerrymandered redistricting plan, and more importantly, most likely would have been the 17th vote against vaccine mandate bill, killing the legislation on a 17-17 tie.
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For some time now, Justice has taken to the airwaves (real and virtual) thrice weekly to spread misinformation and to claim undeserved credit for his handling of the state’s COVID-19 response (which, of late, has been essentially nonexistent).
On Oct. 15, Justice claimed that the state’s COVID-19 statistics were “amazing,” stating, “We have made the right moves. We’ve made the right moves all through this.”
At the time, West Virginia had the highest COVID-19 death rate, the second-highest hospitalization rate, and the lowest vaccination rate in the U.S., according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Resources.
As of Oct. 15, 4,108 West Virginians had died of COVID-19. As of the deadline for this column, the total is 4,263, with the unvaccinated accounting for 93% of all deaths since vaccines became available.
Justice’s claims about the state’s handling of the pandemic are either the ramblings of one who is completely delusional or are bald-faced lies.
Similarly, Justice took to the airwaves last week to claim that West Virginia’s unemployment rate had dropped to the lowest level in state history, a claim he did not attempt to support with any historical data.
“Over the past few years, we’ve had many firsts and set all kinds of economic records, but at the end of the day, reaching a new all-time low for our unemployment rate may be the most important record we’ve ever broken,” Justice claimed.
Of course, Sean O’Leary, senior policy analyst with the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, was quickly able to debunk Justice’s claim as demonstrably false.
As O’Leary’s analysis of state workforce data showed, the decline in unemployment was the result of nearly 14,000 West Virginians leaving the labor force since February 2020 — i.e., retiring, moving out of state, living off the underground economy, or simply giving up looking for work after their unemployment benefits expired. That includes 4,100 who’ve dropped out since this April.
“If those workers were still counted as unemployed, the state’s unemployment rate would be 6.2%,” he noted.
So Justice’s narrative was just flat wrong. The unemployment rate isn’t the result of the state economy booming, which obviously it is not. It’s because droves of would-be workers have left the state or dropped out of the work force.
Justice also found time to showboat virtually on Friday, spinning a ludicrous request by three right-wing Maryland legislators to move three western Maryland counties into the state into a full-fledged fairy tale about how throngs of people and businesses are pouring into the state, having discovered the diamond in the rough that is West Virginia.
(Never mind that U.S. Census figures indisputably prove the opposite.)
That broadcast let him play up all his GOP bona fides, including fealty to the Second Amendment and opposition to women’s reproductive rights — issues he said are attracting western Marylanders to the Mountain State.
Of late, Justice’s COVID-19 briefings have only tangentially addressed the pandemic, with Justice instead using the forums to spout political rhetoric, attack enemies (going off on tirades against the Gazette-Mail in two of three briefings last week), and in one particularly bizarre segment, being joined by state Arts, Culture and History curator Randall Reid-Smith as they shared Justice’s high school yearbook photos.
That certainly isn’t the behavior of one who, after completing his second term as governor, intends to ride off into the sunset, leaving politics behind.
On her MSNBC program last week, Joy Reid surmised Justice is eying a run for the U.S. Senate in 2024, possibly challenging his one-time ally, now arch enemy, Joe Manchin.
She may be onto something.
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Finally, turns out the shady backstory for incoming Administration Secretary Mark Scott is shadier than we thought.
Scott’s bio lists him as having a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Almeda University.
Turns out, dear old Almeda U. is an unaccredited, for-profit online university registered on the Caribbean island of Nevis, and is known for handing out college credit for life experiences, which it designates as “prior learning assessments.”
In a notable 2004 investigative report by WRCB-TV in Albany, New York, reporter Peter Brancato obtained a childhood development degree from Almeda for his dog, based on life experiences that included playing with kids everyday, teaching them to interact with each other better, and teaching them responsibilities “like feeding the dog.”
Perhaps Babydog could get an aviation degree from Almeda for her life experiences flying around the state helping Justice hand out taxpayer-funded sweepstakes prizes.