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Statehouse Beat: House and Senate not singing the same tune

So here’s where we stand: The Republican-controlled Senate is feuding with the Republican governor, who seems to be feuding with everyone from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to his many creditors.

Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled House of Delegates not only doesn’t seem to be on the same page as the Senate on education reform, but isn’t even necessarily singing from the same hymnal.

Who would have thought Republicans could be as factionalized as the Democrats used to be?

The House’s plan on education, if it has one, may become clearer when the special session resumes Monday.

It seems unlikely that House leadership can twist enough arms to shift enough votes to pass the Senate’s omnibus 2.0 bill intact, given its substantial resemblance to the omnibus bill that the House killed in regular session on a 53-45 postpone indefinitely vote.

From there, time will be working against the House — which through House Speaker Roger Hanshaw‘s commitment to send the Senate bill and multiple stand-alone House bills to committees, looks on track to end up spending at least the better part of the week in session.

During the budget impasses of 2016 and 2017, public outcry grew, not because anyone understood the budget process, but because everyone understood the Legislature was spending day after day in Charleston, at taxpayer expense of $35,000 a day, and getting nothing accomplished.

In the regular session, the House attempted to make the omnibus bill more palatable by removing some of the more objectionable provisions — something the Senate leadership rebuffed by amending the bill back into its original form, which led to its ultimate demise on the PI vote.

Does Senate leadership bend this time, and accept a toned-down House version of education reform package? Not likely.

In preparation for their return to Charleston Monday, I’m told that delegates have been advised to pack for five days — at which point, if there’s no agreement in sight, they would probably be wise to cut bait, and try again in 2020.

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As the Senate was preparing to resume the special session earlier this month, billionaire DeVos added fuel to the controversy with a tweet endorsing the Senate omnibus bill, stating in part, “looking forward to bold moves to offer robust options such as charter schools & [Education Savings Accounts].”

Gov. Jim Justice, who has shown little in the way of leadership on education reform other than to criticize the Senate’s omnibus 2.0 plan, was quick to dismiss DeVos’ tweet, stating in public appearances that she had “got ahead of her skis” with the comments, and suggesting she would not be commenting further on the legislation, since “people in the White House were unhappy with her.”

(The Gazette-Mail’s Jake Zuckerman sought comment from DeVos on Justice’s statements, but never received any response from the secretary’s office.)

Justice’s most adamant criticism of omnibus 2.0 has been over one of its punitive measures against teachers, to prohibit school extracurricular activities on days when there are work stoppages.

“Why would we be hitting back at the [teacher] unions at the sacrifice of our kids?” said Justice, who as a high school basketball coach — and as organizer and director of the Big Atlantic Classic, a multi-team, six-day basketball tournament held at the Raleigh County Armory each January — would stand to be personally affected by the provision, and as we’ve come to understand on any issue, ultimately, it’s all about Jim.

I’m told that, since Justice made his comments, DeVos participated in a House Republican caucus conference call on the special session, in which, like in her tweet, she encouraged delegates to pass the Senate’s omnibus 2.0 with the charter school provisions intact.

DeVos’ sudden interest in the education of the children of a state that she’s probably never done more than fly over is curious.

Also curious is that the West Virginia chapter of the Koch brothers-backed Americans For Prosperity has bought ads in heavy rotation pushing for passage of omnibus 2.0. Do we really believe for one moment that the Koch brothers give a darn whether West Virginia children receive quality educations?

A 2018 investigative report in The Guardian may provide a more valid explanation:

“In recent years, AFP has quietly pushed behind the scenes for many of the most important conservative victories across the nation, including the anti-union bills that passed in former union strongholds such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio.

“AFP’s laser-like focus on anti-union legislation is in part driven by the Kochs’ libertarian embrace of free markets and limited government. But it also reflects strategic calculations. AFP has recognized that to make lasting change in U.S. politics, the Koch network would need to permanently weaken the organizations that support liberal candidates and causes — and above all, the labor movement ... To succeed in electing conservative candidates and promoting right-leaning policy, then, AFP would need to hobble unions, especially those in the public-sector that were powerful state-level allies of Democrats.”

And that, Charlie Brown, may be what omnibus 2.0 is really all about.

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Meanwhile, reflecting on a bizarro week: Trying to pick out the most bizarre Jim Justice moment is like trying to pick the goriest scene in a Faces of Death video. They’re all unique in their own way.

However, I have to say one of the more peculiar Justice moments came during his news conference to tout state revenue collection figures, his announcement coming nine days after Senate leadership upstaged him by preemptively releasing the positive May revenue numbers, clearly hitting a nerve with the governor to the point he felt compelled to re-do his own version of the financials.

First, Justice framed the revenue numbers — which are largely due to two factors, a cyclical upturn in metallurgical coal exports, and natural gas pipeline construction — as if he were personally responsible for improving the economy.

Justice’s presentation featured placards, one showing that from FY 2007 through FY 2017, state revenue grew at just 0.8 percent annually, and another showing that in FY 2019 revenue is experiencing an 11.5 percent upswing — conveniently ignoring the fact that the time period in the first placard includes the Great Recession, which frankly, hit other states harder than West Virginia.

According to analysis by the Pew Research Center, West Virginia’s revenue collections returned to pre-recession numbers by 2011 (something it took most other states until 2013 to achieve), while other states have seen steady revenue growth since, West Virginia hit another economic downturn in mid-2015, extending to the start of 2017 — a drop that was actually more severe than the recession, driven by low coal prices and production, a plunge in coal exports, and extremely low natural gas prices. (Which, of course, would lead to the budget impasses of the summers of 2016 and 2017.)

Far be it from me to delve into the intricacies of global coal markets, but I can read charts, and the chart for West Virginia coal exports looks like some sort of demented roller coaster, fluctuating wildly from lows (2015-16) to peaks (as currently).

Nor would I pretend to be an economist, but it appears Justice is taking credit for building the roller coaster, when in reality, he just happens to be riding it at a peak.

Which is fine — governors get unfairly blamed for downturns, why not let them take credit for upswings regardless of whether they actually did anything to contribute to them?

What was most bizarre, however, was that Justice not only took personal credit for the positive revenue numbers, but also used them as a club to bash those, like Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, who have criticized him for refusing to abide by the constitutional requirement that he reside in the seat of government.

“Do you really want to be occupied over where I sleep at night?” Justice railed. “If you think I’m going to apologize to you, or I’m even going to comment on, ‘Well, governor, why aren’t you at the mansion more?’ I’m everywhere more. Everywhere.”

Justice’s supposition seems to be that he can govern more effectively by not coming to work than his predecessors could by actually living in the mansion and going to work in the Governor’s Office every day.

Clearly, Justice knows his 2020 opponents will try to brand him as a part-time, no-show, out-of-touch governor, and the fact he is playing the revenue card in an attempt to portray his effectiveness as governor suggests that his defense against those allegations is not especially strong.

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Finally, progress on a new fall excursion train to replace the cancelled New River Train appears to have hit, in railroading terms, a delay in block.

Recall that in a May 23 tweet, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., teased that an announcement would be coming in the next week about the resumption of the popular excursion train, operated for 52 years by the now-dormant Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society.

Subsequently, the company that has plans to take over operations of the train pushed the announcement date back to June 3, and then indicated the announcement would be delayed for a few days more.

After those days came and went, I was told the holdup has been over securing liability insurance for the train runs, but was assured the issue would be resolved forthwith. Since then, my attempts to contact the would-be operators this week have gone unanswered. Stay tuned.

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

Funerals for Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Adkins, Denvil - 11 a.m., Roush Funeral Home, Ravenswood.

Armstrong, Lola - 3 p.m., Old Pine Grove Cemetery, Sumerco.

Cottrell, H. Harvey - 2 p.m., Allen Funeral Home, Hurricane.

Hager, Doran - 1 p.m., Highland Memory Gardens, Godby.

Hedrick, Phyllis - Noon, Taylor-Vandale Funeral Home, Spencer.

Lane, Mary - 11 a.m., Hafer Funeral Home, Elkview.

Ludwig, Michael - 1 p.m., Epworth United Methodist Church, Ripley.

Morton, Laura - 1 p.m., Ida Baptist Church, Bentree.

Sodder, Elsie - Noon, St. Anthony’s Shrine Catholic Church, Boomer.

Stump, Ruth - 1 p.m., Stump Funeral Home & Cremation Inc., Grantsville.