Methinks Jim Justice does protest too much when he claims he’s not a politician.
Recent actions suggest that, not only is he a politician, but a true old school politician.
I’ve mentioned here before how in 2000, in hopes of winning reelection, Gov. Cecil Underwood methodically built up the governor’s civil contingency fund to the 2020 equivalent of about $20 million, then used it as a campaign war chest, going all over the state handing out grants and awards.
Underwood also put the Division of Highways on a multi-million dollar statewide road-paving spree, a spree that included paving many non-state streets in municipalities along with the adoption of miles and miles of orphan roads into the state Road System — pushing an already overburdened road maintenance program to the brink of collapse and leaving a legacy of ravaged, pot-holed roadways that plague the state to this day.
Which brings us to 2020 and Justice’s efforts to use $50 million of federal CARES Act pandemic relief money to pave roads in all 55 counties in a barefacedly blatant attempt to win votes in November.
The release this week of the list of the 95 projects to receive funding removed any pretense that this is a legitimate response to the pandemic.
Euphemistically called Medical Access Roads, only two of the projects are within shouting distance of the nearest hospital, with many relying on the flimsy premise that a fresh coat of blacktop is crucially needed to reduce response times for emergency vehicles.
Which in itself is a false pretense, since my understanding is COVID-19 is an illness where symptoms generally get progressively worse over time and not a medical emergency requiring rapid response, like a heart attack or stroke.
Also notable is that one of the criteria for the projects are that they be completed this year.
Road-paving sprees is the oldest of the old school politicians’ bag of tricks, but with an important distinction here: Taxpayers could very well end up having to reimburse the feds for the $50 million for impermissible use of pandemic relief funds.
In releasing the list of the 95 projects, Justice clearly ignored hired attorneys Ben Bailey, Brian Glasser and Jonathan Deem, who advised in a legal memorandum that the administration tread very lightly in using relief funds for roads. The attorneys urged a “cautious” and “prudent” approach: “(T)he risk that any certain project would be deemed a non-permissible use of CRF (Coronavirus Relief Fund) dollars should be proportionate to the degree to which the existing conditions are impeding access to care.”
For Justice, the $50 million is a gamble, driven in part by the reality that Roads to Prosperity road construction projects haven’t rolled out as rapidly as he would have liked in an election year, as Highways has shifted emphasis to secondary road maintenance.
Of course, if the feds call Justice’s bluff, it will be the taxpayers who are stuck with the bill.
While I was on staycation, Justice also started emulating Underwood in committing $1.35 million of governor’s civil contingency funds to 392 fairs and festivals around the state, matching the Legislature’s annual appropriations in the 2020-21 state budget.
In announcing the grants, Justice claimed, without supporting evidence, that half the fairs and festivals will not survive being shut down for 2020 without the cash infusion.
In some ways, the announcement was personally heartwarming, since the appropriations –- which fill 7½ single-spaced pages in the budget bill each year — is the last remaining vestige of the late, great Budget Digest.
For newer readers, I spent the better part of two decades writing about the Budget Digest, a document that legislative leaders would prepare post-regular session, directing state agencies on how they were to spend upwards of $40 million in good budget years.
Don Marsh had me write a series of exposes on the semi-secret process, believing that once light was shed on the Budget Digest, leadership would be shamed into abandoning it.
Of course, the opposite happened, and with the publicity, rank-and-file legislators and constituents came out of the woodwork wanting a piece of the action.
It took 15 years, and a series of lawsuits before the Legislature in 2006 passed a law eliminating the digest.
However, legislators recognized the value of being able to award hundreds of checks (ranging in amounts this budget year from less than $1,000 to nearly $50,000) to beloved fairs, festivals and celebrations all over the state and moved that portion of the Budget Digest into the budget bill itself.
Justice’s argument that half these fairs and festivals would not otherwise be able to survive a one-year shutdown seems spurious, since the majority are operated by nonprofit organizations with little or no paid staff.
However, there’s no question of the political value of being able to hand out checks in every city and town across the state in an election year.
There’s no question Justice stumbled out of the gate with his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with his “If you want to go to Bob Evans and eat, go to Bob Evans and eat” edict and a much anticipated statewide address where, as the Gazette-Mail headline noted, he called for action but took none.
However, he recovered and took steps to close schools, restaurants, bars and other businesses and to impose a stay-at-home order much more quickly than his GOP brethren. Unlike many GOP brethren, including the president, Justice seemed to heed the recommendations of health care experts such as West Virginia University’s Dr. Clay Marsh.
Lately, though, much of that momentum has been lost.
He effectively fired state Public Health Officer Dr. Cathy Slemp essentially because she made him look bad. He also dragged his feet on implementing a facemask mandate.
Then, on Wednesday, in an echo of his statewide address, having heralded a major announcement on education, he instead unveiled a half-baked plan with a color-coded system for opening or closing classrooms, the metrics of which are to be determined.
Effectively, Justice told the state that schools will definitely open on Sept. 8 — unless they can’t.
Meanwhile, Justice’s televised briefings have increasingly become more and more of a campaign forum, with frequent rants against gubernatorial opponent Ben Salango, selected reporters and “Nancy Pelosi Washington liberals,” along with gratuitous appearances by officials running the gamut from the Chamber of Commerce to the Bible Center Church to sing Justice’s praises.
Not unexpectedly, the public’s assessment of Justice’s handling of the pandemic has been sinking, according to polling by COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States, a group made up of researchers at Harvard, Rutgers and Northeastern and Northwestern universities.
As cited here previously, in late April, that poll initially found that 78% of West Virginians approved of Justice’s handling of the crisis.
However, that rating dropped to 73% in early May, 67% in late May, 65% in late June and 54% in late July, the last poll conducted to date.
Nationally, approval ratings for governors also have dropped over time, but not as precipitously, falling from an average of 64% approval in late April to 51% in late July.
Likewise, Justice’s rating is still above water, unlike President Trump, whose national average has dropped from 42% approval in late April to 32% in late July.
(In West Virginia, Trump had a 44% approval rating in late July, down from a peak of 58% in early May. Still, that’s good enough to tie for fourth highest in the U.S., with Trump’s approval rating at 30% or lower in 16 states.)
Finally, it didn’t get a lot of coverage, but during the regular session, the Legislature passed and Justice signed into law a bill restricting law firms’ advertising to offer legal services regarding issues with prescription medications or medical devices.
Wordily known as the “Prevention of Deceptive Lawsuit Advertising and Solicitation Practices Regarding the Use of Medications Act,” the Big Pharma-friendly law prohibits ads soliciting potential clients from using words and phrases including “recall,” “consumer medical alert” and “health alert.”
It also prohibits those ads from displaying logos of state or federal agencies. The ads also are required to disclose whether the medication that is the subject of the ad is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Charleston attorney Scott Segal petitioned U.S. District Court for an injunction blocking enforcement of the law, contending it is an unconstitutional violation of the lawyers’ First Amendment rights.
In granting a preliminary injunction earlier this summer, Northern West Virginia U.S. District Judge John Preston Bailey had his snark on, stating: “The state cannot legislate certain words or logos to be unfair or misleading any more than the Legislature can make a rock into a pillow by means of a statute.”
As for the FDA disclaimer, Bailey noted that opioids have FDA approval, pointing out, “There is little state interest in informing the public of that fact in light of the present opioid crisis.”