For a red state governor, Jim Justice has been true-blue in his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, for the most part heeding the advice of health care experts over political advisors.
Justice closed schools, shut down non-essential businesses and issued stay-at-home orders ahead of his red state brethren.
Now, as many red state governors prematurely rush to reopen their states for business, Justice has pledged to continue to follow the advice of his experts and reopen West Virginia, in his words, in “baby steps, not gigantic steps.”
Meanwhile, at a time when state and local governments are cutting spending and laying off workers, Justice has been adamant that he intends to do neither.
In fact, he became irate by the very fact the question of cutbacks was raised at one of his daily COVID-19 briefings, declaring: “First of all, if you’re saying, wouldn’t the prudent thing be to just make cuts or lay people off, well, it wouldn’t be very prudent if I was one of the ones getting laid off … We don’t need to do that. That would be silly.”
That doesn’t sound like traditional profits before people, workers be damned (see item below) rhetoric of the Republican Party.
Justice, who flip-flop-flipped from Republican to Democrat to Republican, is steadfast about not cutting government as most governors, both Democrat and Republican, are recognizing cuts are inevitable in the face of the economic slowdown the pandemic is causing.
Justice has always shown more empathy for people than what a true Republican would be able to muster.
In this instance, he’s pinning his hopes on getting permission from the federal government to use a portion of the $1.25 billion of stimulus money the state has sitting in the bank to fill what will be a $350 million-plus hole in the 2019-20 state budget as tax collections dry up and Lottery profits disappear.
During an April 13 press briefing, he said: “I know enough to believe we won’t have to furlough or lay off anyone. I don’t think we’ll end up having to cut benefits or cut programs in a harsh way — or any way. Our shortfalls are going to be backfilled by the federal government. That’s all in the process now.”
A few days later, Justice indicated he had it on the q.t. from President Donald Trump that the approval was in the pipeline.
Except it wasn’t. When the U.S. Treasury finally got around to releasing guidance to states, the rules specifically forbade using the federal money to fill state budget holes: “Funds may not be used to fill shortfalls in government revenue to cover expenditures that would not otherwise qualify under the statute. Although a broad range of uses is allowed, revenue replacement is not a permissible use of Fund payments.”
Not one to be deterred by running face-first into a brick wall, eternal optimist Justice declared Thursday that it ‘tis but a flesh wound and the feds will reverse the decision in a matter of two or three weeks.
However, some Washington observers suspect something more nefarious in the guidance blocking use of the funds for budget shortfalls — and in U.S. Senate leadership’s refusal to put any additional state or locality bailout funding in the second stimulus appropriation.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was brutally frank in an interview last week, saying he would prefer to see states declare bankruptcy rather than give them additional federal aid.
It’s more likely that, rather than reversing the guidance, Republican leaders in Washington are using their refusal for funding as a blunt object to force governors, particularly blue state governors, to reopen their states earlier than health care experts would recommend, in the face of dwindling revenues and no relief from the federal government.
In which case, Justice’s refusal to make cuts or layoffs early could come back to put the state in a world of hurt, having to make massive cuts in a short month to six-week window.
Despite numerous attempts, West Virginia does not have a law permitting the furloughing of state employees.
The last attempt was in 2017, when it appeared that year’s budget impasse could leave the state without a budget July 1, but the bill died after a compromise was finally reached and a budget bill passed June 16.
Past attempts at passing a furlough bill have died under pressure from public employee groups, which is understandable on one hand, but also ironic on the other.
Without a furlough provision, if the state were to have to reduce payroll, the only option is to terminate employees, presumably to rehire them once the fiscal crisis has passed.
Finally, submitted for your approval: Imagine a state where the Vegetarian Party has come to be, and by some fluke of the electoral process, has taken control of the House and Senate. (Perhaps running on a theme of, “Meat-eaters have run this state for 150 years, and we’re still 49th in everything. What do you have to lose?”)
Once in power, the Vegetarian Party’s first and primary mission was to exact revenge on meat-eaters, not only because they consider them to be a mortal enemy, but because as long as meat-eaters make up a majority of state residents, they pose a real threat to the Vegetarian Party’s ability to stay in power.
Imagine one of the first laws passed by the Vegetarian Party-controlled Legislature says that patrons of restaurants that serve meat have the legal option to refuse to pay for their meals and restaurants cannot attempt to collect that money, or refuse to serve those patrons.
Naturally, the state Restaurant Association would go to court to challenge the law, arguing that if restaurants have to serve large numbers of free-riders, the loss of revenue will inevitably put them all out of business.
Imagine the case gets to the state Supreme Court, which through an impeachment coup previously staged by Vegetarian Party leaders, now has a majority of vegetarian-leaning justices.
Imagine that a majority of the court blithely ignores reality and rules that allowing dine-and-dashers is not an illegal taking of restaurants’ assets because a.) it’s impossible to predict how many future free-riders any given restaurant will have, b.) state law prohibits restaurants from requiring payment from patrons as a condition for being served, and c.) other courts have ruled that free-riding dine-and-dashing is legal.
Imagine that Vegetarian Party leaders — and astroturf organizations funded by billionaire vegetable farm operators — praise the ruling, calling it a great victory, giving restaurant patrons the freedom to decide whether they want to pay their tabs.
This, of course, is an allegory for last week’s state Supreme Court ruling upholding the state’s right-to-work law, which as Justice Margaret Workman noted in her partial dissent, and Justice John Hutchison noted in his concurrence, a politically cynical ruling was the only possible option for such a politically cynical law.
As Hutchison — who I think unfairly had endorsements from the AFL-CIO and UMWA revoked after the decision — noted, “With almost clarion unity, courts repeatedly hold that legislatures may give rights to unions and can just as quickly take those rights away with constitutional impunity … I now think the solution lies in the ballot box, not the courtroom.”