Lobbyist spending disclosures for the May — August reporting period could be described as a study in contrasts.
Total spending for the period of $92,848 was almost freakishly identical to spending for the same period last year, which was $92,797.
Or, perhaps not so surprising, given that each year, spending in the reporting period is dominated by two events, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s annual Business Summit, and the West Virginia Coal Association’s annual meeting — both of which are held each year at Gov. Jim Justice’s Greenbrier resort.
(If you get a chance, give a listen to Kate Mishkin’s Mountain State Morning podcast about how politicians and business leaders tried to maneuver through the potential minefields of conflict while attending the 2019 Business Summit.)
In his disclosure to the Ethics Commission, Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts reported that the chamber spent $6,963 to provide lodging, food and beverages for legislators and state officials who spoke at this year’s Summit, Aug. 28-30.
In descending order of expenses, the guest list included: House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, $1,047; Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, $911; Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, $789; Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, $784; Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke (and spouse), $763; House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor (and spouse), $567; House Finance Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, $524; James Bailey, counsel to the Senate president, $488; Senate Judiciary Chairman Charlie Trump, R-Morgan; $438; director of the governor’s Office of Minority Affairs Jill Upson, $393; state Development Office executive director Michael Graney, $241; Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch, $13.30.
To their credit, Roberts disclosed that five legislators attended the Summit but paid their own way: Sens. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, and Eric Tarr, R-Putnam; and Delegates Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, Jason Harshbarger, R-Ritchie, and Erikka Storch, R-Ohio.
Likewise, Roberts noted that several speakers at the Summit had no expenses paid by the chamber, including state Environmental Protection Secretary Austin Caperton, Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, and Gov. Justice (of course, at The Greenbrier, Justice can make like Capt. Renault and very conveniently tear up the bill.)
Earlier in August, The Greenbrier hosted the Coal Association’s annual meeting, where Bill Raney and Chris Hamilton reported that the association spent $4,173 for lodging, meals and beverages for public officials.
Guest speakers and expenses were: President Carmichael, $1,141; Sen. Blair, $1,081; Transportation Secretary Byrd White, $1,081; Austin Caperton, $633; Patrick Morrisey, $234 (for meals and beverages only).
Meanwhile, sandwiched in between the Coal Association and the Business Summit, the West Virginia Medical Association held its annual conference at, you guessed it, The Greenbrier.
In his disclosure, WVMA executive director Danny Scalise indicated that public officials who spoke at the conference included Carmichael and Hanshaw, as well as Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, and Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, both of whom are physicians.
Scalise did not provide a breakdown of expenditures by individual, but disclosed a total cost of hosting the four legislators of $1,287, with $729 for lodging, $450 for meals and beverages and $108 for gifts, at a cost of $21.60 per.
Lobbyist and former legislator Gil White also disclosed that during the Business Summit, he took Carmichael, Blair, Bailey and Justice senior advisor and former talk show host Bray Cary to dinner at The Greenbrier on Aug. 28, at a cost of $185.05 each. (Didn’t specify which restaurant.)
Contrast those big-dollar galas with the grassroots West Virginia Citizen Action Group. According to executive director Gary Zuckett‘s disclosure, WVCAG spent a total of $3,499 to host a fundraising awards dinner May 16 at the Women’s Club of Charleston to honor six freshmen delegates: Amanda Estep-Burton, D-Kanawha; Cindy Lavender-Bowe, D-Greenbrier; Cody Thompson, D-Randolph; Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia; Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia; and Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall.
WVCAG, whose mission is promote clean elections, fair taxation, increasing the minimum wage, broader health care coverage and energy efficiency, spent a comparatively austere $29.16 per dinner, meaning they were able to feed 6 1/3 people for the cost of one Greenbrier dinner.
Zuckett also indicated that each of the honorees received a gift, valued at $5.89 each.
Couldn’t reach Zuckett on Friday (he was probably out climate striking). However, Delegate Estep-Burton said the gifts were, in her words, “teeny tiny” trophies — although she said she would value the WVCAG trophy over a stay at The Greenbrier every time.
Rhetorical question: What garners more influence at the Legislature: A $5.89 trophy or a $1,000 stay at The Greenbrier?
Notably absent from the disclosures was evidence of much in the way of wining and dining of legislators by FirstEnergy lobbyists in the midst of special session legislation to give a $12.5 million a year tax break to the company’s Pleasants Power Station.
(Although, as previously noted here, FirstEnergy PAC was generous with campaign contributions leading up to the special session.)
As we’ve mentioned before, the Ethics Commission operates with a skeleton crew, and doesn’t have the manpower to do much in the way of verifying that the 300-plus disclosure forms are completed properly.
To that end, it appears that Ben Beakes inadvertently refiled his January-April disclosure.
Also, it appears that Christopher Hudson, an Arlington, Virginia, lobbyist for Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers’ (brother?) anti-tax, anti-government spending PAC, misunderstood what expenses he was required to report.
He apparently reported his own personal expenses for traveling to West Virginia, including $435 for lodging, $213 for meals and $1,700 for travel. ($1,700 for travel? Hudson doesn’t seem to be practicing what his PAC preaches when it comes to cutting spending.)
Meanwhile, a while back, a reader asked if there could be a way to have volunteers assist commission staff with tabulating the financial disclosures.
However, executive director Rebecca Stepto had to put the kibosh on that idea, given the commission’s tight work quarters, and the fact that much of the commission’s work in investigating ethics complaints has to be kept confidential.
I believe the commission is working to get additional funding next session to be able to post the lobbyists’ expenditure reports on its website, thus giving those who wish the opportunity to review them and point out any omissions or obvious errors.
Speaking of Byrd White, the longtime Justice business associate and friend will have his confirmation as state Highways Commissioner pending in Senate Confirmations Committee Monday morning.
Given that White comes nowhere close to meeting the qualifications for commissioner in state Code, which requires experience in “highway planning, finance, construction, maintenance, management and supervision,” it will be interesting to see if the Senate goes along to get along, or decides to escalate leadership’s ongoing feud with Justice.
White also serves as state Transportation Secretary, but cabinet secretary positions are not subject to Senate confirmation. However, under state law, if he serves as both Transportation Secretary and Highways commissioner, he will get a salary bump from $95,000 to $120,000.
Department of Administration spokeswoman Samantha Knapp advises that work is proceeding to install a new, larger, ADA-compliant elevator in the governor’s mansion, with the contractor on the $149,791 project currently working on drywall in the interior of the widened elevator shaft, with the new elevator cab expected to be delivered early next month.
Finally, give U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., points for persistence. Last year, Manchin got language amended into the federal transportation appropriations bill to restore station agents at Amtrak stations that were de-staffed in 2018 (including Charleston).
However, at the last second, Amtrak attorneys got the language revised to require either station agents or caretakers.
(Amtrak replaced station agents at many locations, including CHW, with low-paid hourly caretakers, responsible for opening, locking up and cleaning waiting areas. In my experience, the level of customer service they provide ranges from nonexistent to nominal.)
Most significantly, caretakers cannot sell tickets, which as Manchin has noted, is critical in states where many locations have limited internet access. (Also, in states where significant portions of the population do not have credit or debit cards needed to make reservations on-line or by phone.)
This time around, Manchin has introduced legislation requiring at least one station agent in each state served by Amtrak, and clarifying that means a person who sells tickets and assists passengers.
Meanwhile, another Manchin project, to restore a fall excursion train on the Huntington-to-Hinton route of the former New River Train, seems to be going swimmingly.
Railexco is reporting strong ticket sales for its inaugural Autumn Colors Express, Oct. 25-27, with at least 12 cars on the Saturday run already sold out.
Also, kudos to the city of Charleston and Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau for making arrangements for free parking downtown and free shuttle bus service to and from the station for the train’s stops in Charleston.