My columns for the past two weeks focusing on the state’s population loss in the past six years — losses that are either the direct or coincidental result of Republicans taking control of the Legislature — certainly have generated a lot of interest.
That included a call from Andrew Cockburn, prolific author and Washington, D.C., editor of Harper’s Magazine (and father of Olivia Wilde), who wanted to discuss West Virginia politics in general and last Sunday’s column in particular for a piece he’s writing about Joe Manchin.
(I look forward to the article with great interest and trepidation. I’m barely intellectual enough to read Harper’s, let alone possibly be cited in Harper’s.)
Several Republican readers took offense at the columns’ premise that after two decades of slow population growth, the state saw an exodus of 3.6% of its population in just six years under GOP control of the state.
Said one: “I can’t believe you have turned the decline in West Virginia state population into another opportunity to bash Republicans and [former President Donald] Trump. Obviously you are a member of FAKE NEWS. Maybe it’s due (to the) lowest participation in the last census in the country. That could skew the numbers.”
(Actually, after a slow start in self-response rates, West Virginia finished as one of the top states in U.S. Census participation, something Gov. Jim Justice has frequently touted during his COVID-19 briefings.)
A common theme was noting that Republicans can’t be expected to reverse eight decades of Democratic rule in six years, and reiterating the state’s multi-decade decline in coal mining jobs. (Although one wrote, “Don’t you realize the demise in coal began with [former President Barack] Obama and Hilary [former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton] pandering to the environmentalists?”)
Of course, if the GOP agenda was so star-spangled wonderful at attracting businesses and jobs to the state as its proponents claim, the population should at least have stayed steady, instead of population loss accelerating.
No GOP response would be complete without a dose of whataboutism, including one reader who said, “Our mess couldn’t possibly have any connection to the policies the [Charleston] Gazette has championed, now could it?”
Former U.S. Attorney (and oft-mentioned potential 2024 Republican candidate for governor) Mike Stuart took a different tack, stating, “As you know, the decline of West Virginia’s economy didn’t happen overnight. It was decades in the making and we could see it happening ... There is lots of blame to go around, but asserting blame won’t build the future.”
Stuart envisions a post-pandemic world where West Virginia takes advantage of the new paradigm of people working remotely, with workers untethered from having to live in or near large metropolitan areas.
Stuart is realistic about what it will take to make the state attractive to remote workers: “The focus today must be targeted investment, infrastructure, including broadband, water, sewer, waterways and transportation, revitalization incentives and programs for our towns and more people. Lots and lots of people. And we need the best — the best schools, including hands-on applied vocational education programs ...”
(Sounds like a resounding endorsement of President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan, doesn’t it?)
Of course, you can’t be a Republican politician these days without tossing in some measure of nastiness, and Stuart warned, “The fix for West Virginia will be quicker than its decline, but it won’t happen overnight. When it starts moving, however, the ‘resistors’ will need to get out of the way or get rolled over.”
Overall, comments on the columns were probably four-to-one favorable over critical, but one in particular stood out, from Robert Beanblossom, a former longtime Division of Natural Resources district administrator, who wrote, “I was one of those who ‘voted with my feet’ and left West Virginia in 2015. Although I retired and left to take advantage of what has turned out to be a great opportunity, my only regret is that I wished I could have left sooner.”
Beanblossom said that while he is proud of his 42-year career with the DNR and the state, “Clearly, anyone could see how things overall — economically, politically, environmentally, socially, etc. — were declining, and I watched West Virginia’s long slide into a dismal future.
“I wish I could say, ‘I worked when so-and-so was governor, and he was a good one.’ Unfortunately, West Virginia has had a long line of mediocre governors and it hasn’t really mattered if they were Democrat or Republican. They have all been worthless, with Jim Justice being the worst of the lot.
“The state has moved too far in the wrong direction and too many educated people have left. There is simply no catalyst for change. The political system has always fed on a largely under-educated, poor population, and those with some means were and are content with preserving the status quo.”
Beanblossom closed: “I would never willingly return to West Virginia.”
While I think we can agree the state has suffered from years of undistinguished leadership, current leaders arguably are escalating the exodus and the state’s spiral into a less-than-promising future, with their intolerance and open hostility toward people who are different from themselves, the working class and educators and education in general.
I look forward to more comments and ideas for reversing the decline.
Justice likes to say he’s not a politician, which as I’ve noted before, is not true. He is, however, a very naïve politician, as he showed again recently.
In my 32 years, Justice is the first governor not to have vetoed a bill in a regular session, except one for technical errors, allowing the Legislature to correct and re-pass the bill.
Justice, whose tells are obvious, is clearly trying to play up to legislators who soundly (0-100) defeated his tax shift plan in the regular session, hoping that by not offending any members with vetoes of any of their bills, he can win support for his tax scheme. That worked out well for him.
In doing so, he committed a dereliction of duty and forfeited an important governmental check and balance.
Governors (and their attorneys) have an obligation to thoroughly review enrolled bills not only for substance but for technical errors and code conflicts.
In the prior three sessions, Justice vetoed a total of 21 bills for technical errors, including 15 technical vetoes in the particularly sloppy bill drafting year of 2019.
In 2020, three of the six bills Justice vetoed were for technical errors. However, this session, the Legislature had to pass two bills (SB81, SB523) that corrected a total of six incorrect code citations that got past Justice and his attorneys.
Mistakes happen, and a governor’s veto is frequently the last opportunity to prevent errors from getting into state code.
(Probably the most common mistake occurs when bills are amended late in the session, and staff counsel simply fail to amend the bill title to reflect the change. Bill titles are summaries of the contents of each bill, including what sections of code are being changed or created. I don’t know the history of bill titles but have always assumed they were put there so lazy reporters like me don’t have to read bills in their entirety.)
Justice’s total of six vetoes in the 2020 and 2021 sessions marks the fewest number of vetoes over a two-year span over the past 30 years, with Gov. Gaston Caperton’s nine vetoes in 1992 and 1993 being the second lowest.
During that time period, the highest two-year total of vetoes came in 2015 and 2016, when Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed a total of 59 bills passed by the newly Republican-controlled Legislature.
Over 16 sessions, Govs. Bob Wise, Joe Manchin and Tomblin each had only one session where they vetoed fewer than 10 bills, and Gov. Cecil Underwood, a Republican working with Democratic supermajorities in the Legislature, never vetoed fewer than 11 bills a session.
Justice’s rubberstamping of the legislative agenda surely let flawed bills, both literally and technically, become law. The one that immediately comes to mind is the transgender athlete ban that he “proudly” signed into law, despite the likelihood it’s unconstitutional and will cost the state millions of dollars from a NCAA boycot.
If he’s expecting a quid pro quo of newfound support for his tax shift scheme in exchange for not vetoing any bills, he’s sadly mistaken.
Finally, Justice has a long history of making false claims about easily verifiable data. During a state COVID-19 briefing last week, he noted that 46.4% of West Virginians 16 or older have been fully vaccinated, commenting, “That probably leads the nation, or is close to it.”
The Centers for Disease Control data tracker, which uses a slightly different metric by counting each state’s total population, on the day of Justice’s comments ranked West Virginia 36th in the nation in percentage of population fully vaccinated, something Justice or his minions could have verified, rather than spouting off a grandiose and false narrative about the state being a national leader in vaccinations.
(FYI, as of Friday, West Virginia had slipped to 37th on the CDC data tracker.)
Meanwhile, the buzz Friday was over the governor’s conspicuous absence during First Lady Jill Biden’s visit to Charleston a day earlier.
As one reader emailed: “I wasn’t able to get to get to Charleston to cheer Jill Biden on, but correct me if I’m wrong — our own governor couldn’t be bothered to greet her? If that’s the case, it’s downright bad manners, among many, many other things, and he should be castigated for it.”
Guess that’s just Jim being Jim.