In the past week, as the pandemic reached critical new levels, West Virginia set records for COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations and deaths here surpassed 900, Gov. Jim Justice did … nothing.
That contrasts with his previous tacks. In March, the governor ordered a 10-week shutdown of all but essential businesses and activities. Twice, he has ordered bars closed in Monongalia County. As recently as Nov. 30, Justice contemplated ordering early closings at bars and clubs in counties bordering Pennsylvania and Ohio, where governors already have ordered early closing hours.
Within two days, Justice said he had no irrefutable evidence that bars and indoor dining are contributing to the spread of COVID-19. He echoed President Donald Trump, suggesting the economic harm caused by closures would be worse than the disease.
At his Friday briefing, Justice mocked other states’ efforts to curb the spread. New York, for example, again closed indoor dining.
Both Trump and Justice subscribe to a false dichotomy. Open does not mean thriving. Just because businesses with high potential for COVID-19 spread are allowed to remain open does not mean customers are flocking to those locations.
The rational option would be to close but compensate operators and employees of high-risk businesses and activities.
Granted, Justice handed out CARES Act grants in the amounts of $2,000 and $5,000 denominations to small businesses, including numerous restaurants and bars. But that was little more than a campaign gesture and a pittance compared to what these bars and restaurants (and their employees) need to survive.
Justice has chosen not to do more, despite inexplicably sitting on a CARES Act fund balance of $806.2 million of $1.27 billion the state received in April, according to the most recent update from the state Auditor’s Office.
Instead of helping struggling small business owners and employees, Justice has parked the biggest chunk of that money to replenish the state’s unemployment trust fund on the premise that if that fund is depleted, unemployment insurance taxes for employers across the state will have to be increased.
If you’re an employer who doesn’t regularly lay off large numbers of employees, then unemployment insurance is a nominal cost of doing business. Increasing a nominal cost is still nominal.
As for those families struggling to find rent money, put food on the table and pay utility bills incurred since July 31 … they get nothing.
I talked to a Monroe County reader who said his neighbor is so desperate he raised the question of whether his life insurance would pay if he committed suicide.
The reader, rightfully stunned, told the neighbor he was pretty sure that would void the policy.
And Justice does … nothing.
Naturally, Justice attempted to twist his inaction into an attack on the Gazette-Mail in general, claiming we would just as soon shut the state down.
That was during Monday’s COVID-19 briefing after state Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch urged West Virginians to be aware of both metrics for risk of spread in their counties — the percentage of positive cases and infection rates — and not simply rely on the state COVID-19 risk map, which designates each county’s color code for risk based on whichever metric is lower. (At the time, 54 of 55 counties were highest-risk red for infection rates, but the “either-or” map showed a total of 31 counties in low-risk green, yellow or gold.)
Following up on Crouch’s statement, I asked if there is concern, given the current surge of infection, the scrubbed map could give residents in purportedly green or yellow counties a false sense of security.
Justice blew up, falsely claiming the Gazette-Mail wants to shut everything down.
It is clear that a significant portion of West Virginians are not following Justice’s gentle admonishments to wear facemasks and social distance and much of that is because they refuse to recognize the seriousness of COVID-19, and the overly positive “either-or” map likely contributes to that attitude.
The cult of Trump reached its absurd apogee last week with a lawsuit calling on the U.S. Supreme Court to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Americans and overturn the results of a fair, legitimate and duly certified presidential election.
Actively participating in this little act of sedition were state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who joined 16 other GOP attorneys general in filing an amicus brief in the case, and Reps. Alex Mooney and Carol Miller, both R-W.Va., who joined 104 GOP House representatives in signing a formal letter of support for the lawsuit.
Meanwhile, both Justice and Secretary of State Mac Warner endorsed the litigation, and the chief state elections officer on Wednesday spoke at a “March for Trump” rally in Charleston.
Morrisey and Warner are bright guys, and both have eyes on higher office in 2024, and surely aren’t the first politicians to pander to a sizable bloc of voters.
Both men are also lawyers and answerable to the Code of Legal Ethics.
With the retirement of Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, members of the Senate Democratic super-minority had to pick a new leader. While Sen. Stephen Baldwin’s credentials and ethics are impeccable, I gather Senate Democrats were divided on giving him the nod.
Baldwin’s wife, Kerry, is director of event services at The Greenbrier resort and concerns were raised in caucus that could make Baldwin reluctant to stand up to Justice, perhaps to the point of pushing Democrats to side with the governor in those instances when Senate Republicans are at loggerheads with Big Jim – something that occurred frequently in Justice’s first term.
Given Justice’s tendency to fire underlings for the slightest cause, whether in the executive branch or his businesses, concerns the governor could operate as an invisible hand in the Senate Democratic caucus seem valid.
Last week, the right-wing Tax Foundation put out its annual State Business Climate Index, and simply managed to show how farcical it is to assume low business taxes produce economic growth.
The Tax Foundation’s five most business tax-friendly states are Wyoming, South Dakota, Alaska, Florida and Montana. In 2019, those states ranked, respectively, 50th, 48th, 47th, fourth and 49th in state gross domestic product. Those five states had a total GDP of $1.3 trillion with an average GDP of $258.8 billion. (Exclude Florida, and the average drops to $50.1 billion.)
For reference, West Virginia’s GDP in 2019 was $78.2 billion, good for 42nd overall.
The foundation’s five least business tax-friendly states are New Jersey, California, New York, Connecticut and Minnesota. In 2019, those states ranked eighth, first, third, 23rd and 17th in state gross domestic product with a total GDP of $6.2 trillion and an average GDP of $1.2 trillion.
You might say those states are taxing themselves to prosperity.
Except for right-wingers who want to cut public services, gut public schools and eliminate social safety nets, the reality is taxes are not a significant factor in determining where businesses, individuals or families locate.
Last week’s column said a letter to the editor from Rebecca McPhail omitted the fact that she is president of the West Virginia Manufacturers’ Association.
It turned out McPhail indeed made that disclosure in her letter, but in the editing process, that information was deleted.
Finally, I had a brief brush with fame with Chuck Yeager, who died Monday after a long, storied life and career.
Back in 1985, the Central West Virginia Airport Authority was looking to rename Kanawha Airport for Yeager, who was enjoying a new wave of fame following the release of “The Right Stuff” book and movie, along with his autobiography.
However, in that pre-cellphone, pre-internet era, the authority had been unable to reach Yeager to get his permission to name the airport for him. He was on a national tour promoting his book.
It happened that, as part of that tour, he appeared on “Larry King Live” on CNN. The show featured a call-in format, where viewers could pose questions to the guest.
I dialed the number, got through, explained to the screener what I was trying to do and got put on the air to ask Yeager about renaming the airport.
His answer: “It would be an honor. I knew they were thinking about it.” Yeager then turned to King and mused, “Normally, you have to be dead to have something named after you.”
I haven’t flown in years, but if landings at Yeager Airport are as white-knuckle as they used to be, I’m sure its namesake appreciated having such a technically challenging airport named for him.