I’m probably starting to sound like the proverbial broken record, but for someone who claims to not be a politician, Jim Justice out-old-schools the best (worst?) of the old-school politicians.
In his latest episode, after sitting on three-fourths of the $1.27 billion of federal CARES Act pandemic relief funds for six months, Justice finally announced Wednesday the launch of a program to distribute $25 million of that stockpile to assist households with delinquent utility bills.
The timing — coming four months after he originally announced he would dedicate that amount for utility bills — could not appear more political, falling on the first day of early voting and 13 days before Election Day.
Never mind estimates that West Virginia residents currently owe at least $50 million in delinquent utility bills. (Public Service Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Lane said Wednesday that some 133,000 households will be eligible for the CARES Act funding, which works out to about $188 per household, which helps but won’t get most households above water.)
Also peculiar is that the funds only apply to utility bills dated from March 1 to July 31, a period when most West Virginians received $1,200 stimulus checks and most unemployed West Virginians were eligible for $600 a week in supplemental unemployment benefits.
(I tried to get additional information about the program, but, as usual, the governor’s expansive and expensive communications division did not respond.)
The program also does nothing to help West Virginians who are facing eviction or foreclosure because of delinquent rent or mortgage payments, something Justice has repeatedly mentioned in calling on Congress to pass another round of stimulus funding, even as he sits on $969.7 million of CARES Act money, according to the latest figure from the state Auditor’s Office.
(That includes $587 million “parked” to pay future unemployment claims, even though WorkForce West Virginia’s own projections estimate only a $216 million shortfall.)
As with Justice’s many recent appearances around the state to announce grants or projects that have been in the works for months or years, the timing of the launch of the utility payment program, along with the program’s many built-in limitations, rings hollow with the voting season underway.
Back in the day (and by that, I mean before cellphones and email), when things would get slow during a legislative session, statehouse wire service reporters Andy Gallagher and Brian Farkas would make up a rumor, go up to the well of the rotunda and tell the “rumor” to one lobbyist each, and then rush back to the Press Room to see how long it would take the rumor to come back to them. Sometimes, they would barely get back before their (landline) phones would ring, or someone would pop his head in to say, “Have you heard the latest?”
Back in July, when Senate leadership was blocking a bipartisan effort by legislators to call themselves into special session to appropriate CARES Act funds, I speculated on this page that I wouldn’t be surprised if Justice rewarded soon-to-be-ex-Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, with a high-paying job in his administration, for permitting Justice to continue to allocate funds without constitutionally mandated legislative oversight.
I further speculated that the job could be chief of staff, since Mike Hall — who has been wholly invisible in that role for some time, with most of his duties performed by Justice advisor Bray Cary — would as of August reach the three years of service time needed to turn a small legislative pension into a big state pension.
Lately, the rumor has been picking up steam, including publication in a political column whose author cited unnamed sources who said that it is indeed Justice’s plan to make Carmichael chief of staff in January, if Justice is reelected.
Most of my best sources are either retired or passed on, so I can’t verify whether that claim is accurate, or whether like the statehouse press corps rumor mills of yore, it’s a matter of a column item taking on a life of its own.
The rumor has gained momentum to the point where Carmichael last week was moved to go on social media to post a denial, which assuredly only added fuel to the fire that the rumor has substance.