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Statehouse Beat: Is there a moratorium on road contracts?

Those who make their livings building roads are concerned that the Justice administration has imposed an informal moratorium on awarding construction contracts while Gov. Jim Justice tries to figure how he’s going to shift money around to get more funding into secondary road maintenance.

(There’s certainly precedent, like last year when Justice froze about $150 million of federal flood recovery funds while the administration sorted out snafus with the RISE flood recovery program.)

We’re not talking about the many road projects that came in way over estimate, and had to go back to the proverbial drawing board to be scaled back, like the Interstate 70 project through Wheeling. The concern is that many other projects are being held in limbo.

Case in point: The Jefferson Road project in South Charleston.

Bid opening was back on Jan. 29, and the apparent low bid of $46.75 million by Kokosing Construction, based out of Columbus but with an office in South Charleston, actually came in a few million dollars under estimate. (The bid opening was originally set for August 2018, but was pushed back.)

This project is integral to the city’s multimillion-dollar Park Place development, not least because the Division of Highways has agreed to provide the city with 850,000 cubic yards of dirt excavated from the road construction to fill the old FMC fly ash pond on the development site. One would think it would have been green-lighted, with Justice, Mayor Frank Mullens, and then-Transportation Secretary Tom Smith out front on the first warm day in February for a photo-op with hardhats and gold shovels.

But no, the first 30-day window to ink a contract came and went, and Kokosing management granted one extension, and then another and apparently another.

I talked to Mullens, who said he’s been assured by Justice’s people that the project is on track.

“What we’ve been told by leadership is everything is fine. They’re just waiting on signatures, and bringing the new people up to speed,” he said.

(Or, in the immortal words of Chip Diller during the homecoming parade riot: “Remain calm. All is well.”)

As I understand it, a Highways contract requires four signatures, which is three signatures fewer than a bill needs to be enrolled and signed into law — and the Legislature and the governor managed to get 200-plus bills signed into law in 2 ½ weeks.

I made an inquiry to Highways about the status of the Jefferson Road project, but did not receive a reply.

•••

Speaking of roads, consensus is that Justice may have made a critical blunder in vetoing two bills intended to address severe underfunding of the state road system (SB 522, HB 3044), in one case indicating that the bill is a “legislative encroachment into executive functions.”While Justice is correct that the roads didn’t suddenly fall apart under his watch — the West Virginians for Better Transportation group has been holding Fix Our Roads rallies at the Capitol since 2011 — he now owns the problem, and moving a few piles of money around or giving priority to some road patching projects is not going to resolve a multibillion-dollar issue.

Roads assuredly will be a key issue in the 2020 gubernatorial race, and there’s not enough time or money to make a significant dent in a decade of neglect. With the vetoes and stunts like the 16-minute pep rally for district engineers and county highways supervisors, Justice has put himself at the forefront of the issue — not a place where a politician seeking re-election would want to be.

•••

Because Justice’s appointed transportation secretary, Byrd White, is not qualified to also serve as highways commissioner, taxpayers will pick up White’s salary of $95,000, as well as acting Highways Commissioner Jimmy Wriston’s salary of $92,500.Under state law, when the transportation secretary also serves as commissioner (as Tom Smith and most of his predecessors did), the salary is set at $120,000. So that’s $67,500 a year that could have gone to patch potholes.

•••

Justice also managed to commit a serious ethical lapse last week, using state resources and employees to issue a blatantly political screed in the form of an official gubernatorial press release.Ostensibly designed to comment on special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s completion of the report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Justice used the release to parrot Donald Trump’s talking points on the investigation, and to bash Sen. Joe Manchin, rumored to be considering a 2020 run for governor.

Equal parts sucking up to Trump supporters, and attacking a political rival and potential 2020 competitor, the release — on official letterhead and listing communications director Butch Antolini as the contact — clearly is a case of using public office and public resources for private gain, in this case for political gain.

For being an official state document, it also contains a remarkable number of false or misleading statements, beginning with Justice congratulating Trump for “being completely and totally exonerated from any wrongdoing.”

That’s parroting a Trump statement, but even Trump Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the Mueller report quotes Mueller as saying the report “does not exonerate” Trump regarding obstruction of justice.

I think the clearest evidence the Mueller report does not totally exonerate Trump is the fact that an unredacted report has not been released to the public.

If the report truly did what Justice claims it does, the RNC would have printed and distributed so many copies of the 400-page report, it would be like the good old days, when you would come home and find two or three phonebooks at your front door.

In the statement that readers seemed to find most offensive, Justice went on to say, “Anybody with a brain knows that this investigation was a complete witch hunt by Washington liberals from the very beginning.”

Again, parroting a Trump talking point, while throwing in a Trumpian insult implying that anyone who supported an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election is brainless.

If it had stopped there, Justice’s release might have been dismissed as a moment of over-exuberance for his friend’s good fortune.

For the record, I went through archives of Justice’s press releases, and excluding statements recognizing national holidays or days of remembrance, Justice has issued statements on national matters just three times previously:

Nov. 27, 2017: Expressing support for federal tax reform, in which Justice again echoed a Trump talking point of dubious accuracy: “President Trump is continuing to keep his promise to Americans to help grow our country by providing our average families with significant tax relief.”

July 26, 2018: Praising Trump, and vice president Mike Pence for improving the state, national economies. Again, tenuous at best.

Jan. 23, 2019: Inviting Trump to give the State of the Union address at the state Capitol, when the House of Representatives chamber was off-limits during the partial federal government shutdown.

In his latest release, Justice went well beyond the pale with the final paragraph of his statement: “Meanwhile, now that President Trump has been cleared of wrongdoing, one of those loud Washington liberals, Joe Manchin, has suddenly gone quiet. But Joe’s refusal to back President Trump shouldn’t be a surprise — after all, Joe voted ‘no’ on President Trump’s wall, Joe voted ‘no’ on President Trump’s middle-class tax cuts and Joe voted ‘no’ on President Trump’s repeal and replace of ObamaCare.”

Manchin’s explanations for those votes have been well documented, and in the case of the tax cuts, prophetic.

However, Justice’s attempt to portray Manchin — who most recently voted against the Green New Deal and was the only Senate Democrat to decline to cosponsor an LGBTQ nondiscrimination bill — as a liberal is as laughable as it is blatantly political.

(What steamed me is that Antolini, who either cannot be bothered to or is not authorized to respond to reporters’ inquiries, had time to write and/or edit such a breach of ethics.)

Justice’s people must have realized they crossed the line, since the release in question has not been archived on the governor’s website.

•••

Finally, one of these years, I’d like to compile all the legal fictions that make up state alcohol beverage laws (i.e., liquor by the drink may be served only in private clubs to club members, beer is non-intoxicating, etc.).However, the 2019 Legislature did pass a number of changes to make state alcohol laws less provincial, including repealing the ban on Sunday liquor sales, and relaxing restrictions on the state’s growing craft beer industry (including increasing the maximum allowable ABV to 15 percent).

Less noticed was a catch-all bill (SB 561) that, among other things, will legalize bottle service and the use of machines to serve frozen daiquiris and other slushy-like alcoholic beverages.

(Previously, frozen drink machines were illegal in the state, since the law required that liquor by the drink be poured directly from the original container.)

So, whoever gets the first frozen daiquiri from a machine, cheers.

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@wvgazettemail.com,

304-348-1220 or follow

@PhilKabler on Twitter.

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Funerals for Saturday, August 24, 2019

Barron, Dennis - 11 a.m., Airborne Church, Martinsburg.
Baylor, Elizabeth - 1 p.m., Snodgrass Funeral Home, South Charleston.
Bonds Jr., Patrick - 1 p.m., King of Glory International Ministries, Charleston.
Burgess, Corey - 5 p.m., Aldersgate United Methodist Church.
Burns, Helen - 11 a.m., Stump Funeral Home & Cremation, Inc., Grantsville.
Caldwell, Gary - 6 p.m., Long & Fisher Funeral Home, Sissonville.
Casto, Carroll - 1 p.m., Raynes Funeral Home, Eleanor.
Casto, Roger - 2 p.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Winfield.
Duty, Fred - 2 p.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.
Fisher, Bernard - 2 p.m., Waybright Funeral Home, Ripley.
Gwinn, Lloyd - Noon, Church of Christ, Craigsville.  
Habjan, Nathan - 1 p.m., Wilson-Smith Funeral Home, Clay. 
Hall, Daniel - Noon, Witcher Baptist Church.
Hinkle, Ethel - Noon, Church of Christ, Craigsville.  
Hoffman, Bruce - 2 p.m., Foglesong - Casto Funeral Home, Mason.  
Kinder, Siegel - 1 p.m., Leonard Johnson Funeral Home, Marmet.
Kyler, Virgil - 11 a.m., Pleasant Grove Cemetery, Reedy.
Palmer, William - 1 p.m., Barlow Bonsall Funeral Home, Charleston. 
Raynes Sr., Steven - 1 p.m., Tyree Funeral Home, Oak Hill.
Truman, James - 2 p.m., Newton Baptist Church, Newton.
Turner, Keith - Noon, Full Gospel Assembly,  Huntington. 
Webb, Antoinette - 11 a.m., SS Peter and Paul Catholic Church, Oak Hill.
Wilson, Greg - Noon, Roach Funeral Home, Gassaway.
Withrow, James - 1 p.m., Cooke Funeral Home Chapel, Cedar Grove.