Events leading up to the current uproar over the terrible conditions of state roads sums up Gov. Jim Justice’s governing style in a nutshell:
1. In State of the State address, pledge to increase funding to fix secondary roads.
2. During regular session, introduce no bills, and fail to actively support any other legislation designed to achieve point 1.
(When Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, is the champion of your cause, you know your cause is in trouble. Smith’s bill (SB 522) creates a special road fund, which he initially proposed funding with $200 million of Rainy Day reserve funds, which later became two annual $110 million installments from general revenue, and ultimately became lip service when all funding was stripped out of the final version of the bill.)
3. When criticism rains down for failure to accomplish point 1, find a fall guy to blame and fire (Transportation Secretary Tom Smith); after 27 months in office, blame predecessors for current shortcomings; announce a vague remediation plan to move a yet-unspecified amount of funds into secondary road maintenance; and stage some theatrics that create the impression that action is being taken.
(In this case, the theatrics were literally in the Culture Center Theater, as Justice ordered Highways district managers and county supervisors from around the state to come to Charleston for what turned out to be a 16-minute pep rally/call to action.)
We’ve seen variations on this theme throughout Justice’s term as governor, reactive rather than proactive, seat-of-the-pants hunches rather than deliberation, showboating in lieu of substance.
Take the Public Employees Insurance Agency, for example. Back in February 2018, as part of the resolution of the statewide teachers’ walkout, Justice created the PEIA Task Force mandated to meet the teachers’ demands for a “fix, not a freeze” to resolve what had become an annual ritual of premium hikes/benefits cuts for the state-managed health insurance plan.
At the panel’s first meeting that March, Justice told the unworkably large 29-member group, “I’m wanting you to find a solution, and not wanting it to take forever. It is massively important to the state. This is a ticket number that’s gigantic, and it’s growing every day.”
While a year is not forever, here we are a year later, and the Task Force has not found a solution, and in fact, has come up with just a few proposals, the most substantive of which — to cap employees’ share of cost increases at 20 percent — was rejected by the House of Delegates.
The Task Force in the past year has been dormant for long stretches, with its most recent meeting nearly three months ago, back on Jan. 8, despite plans at the time to meet again soon after Justice gave his State of the State address.
Likewise, shortly before the 2018 “Remember in November” general election, with Republican legislators as a backdrop, Justice promised a second round of pay raises averaging 5 percent to teachers, school personnel and state employees, and to put an extra $100 million into PEIA — an amount he raised to $150 million in his State of the State address, again, with only a vague explanation of where the extra money would come from:
“We’re not going to do $100 million; we’re going to do $150 million, and you know what we’re going to do? We’re not going to take one dime of that from the budgets, the upcoming budgets.”
However, once the dust cleared and the details of the plan became known, we learned that $105 million of that total would come from 2018-19 budget surplus, and the other $45 million, surprise, surprise, would come from per-FTE assessments on state agencies.
Ultimately, the Legislature balked at imposing that assessment, after it became clear the $16 million cost to state colleges and universities would be a severe financial blow to struggling state colleges.
So PEIA will make do with $105 million, which conveniently enough, will get them through the 2020-21 plan year, and past the critical 2020 election cycle, without needing premium increases or benefits cuts.
We could go on. When it became clear the Justice administration had botched recovery efforts from the 2016 floods, Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher — presumably hired to be the big picture guy on economic development, not to build little houses with white picket fences — was the fall guy. (See also: Nick Casey, Gayle Manchin, etc.)
At one point during the surreal meeting with Highways officials, Justice seemed to recognize the absurdity of having required them to drive in from all over the state for a 16-minute session that could have just as easily been done via teleconference or conference call.But then, narcissism kicked in: “Hopefully, it wasn’t a long drive here, but if it was, that’s a good thing. I drive a lot all the time. My vehicle is 13 months old, and right now, it’s got 114,000 miles on it.”
(FYI, that’s an astounding 288 miles a day, or nearly five hours a day on the road, assuming an average speed of 60 mph, but I digress.)
That comment drew an awkward silence, since it revealed the obvious: Under normal circumstances, the governor of West Virginia has one of the shortest commutes to work of anyone in the state.
Most governors, I’m advised, actually walk to work.
Also telling was that at one point in the presentation Justice seemed to indicate that he believes himself to be a shoo-in for re-election, telling the supervisors and district engineers that they need to work with him, advising, “There’s a real good chance you’re going to be looking at me for six more years.”
Which in some ways is odd, given that Justice’s absences from this session seemed more frequent, and his detachment from the legislative process more pronounced than in previous years, particularly compared to his hands-on, attempted shuttle diplomacy of his first session.He doesn’t seem to relish, and certainly isn’t very good at, interacting with legislators.
Justice was invisible, presumably off campus, for long stretches of the session, periodically checking in to berate the Legislature for their “bickering,” and returning in the last days to attend party caucuses in both houses in what by most accounts was a disastrous attempt to try to “salvage” a number of issues, including teacher pay raises.
The caucus appearances failed because Justice has lost the trust of members of both parties in both houses. They’ve been “buffooned” once too often.
Instead of brokering a compromise on education in the regular session, Justice went into fallback mode, calling a special session that, when it resumes in May or June, will be at a cost of $35,000 a day just for per-day pay and expenses for legislators.
Meanwhile, one of the long-standing traditions of the last night of the session is an appearance by the governor at about 10:30 or 11 p.m. to review how his legislative agenda fared, and to offer general assessments on the session.
That didn’t happen this year, and while I understand Justice was under the weather, he could not have been eager to discuss a session that seemingly brought more setbacks than victories.
That being said, the whole 2019 legislative session had a disjointed feel to it, part of which I attribute to the rotunda being closed off for repairs, creating the illusion of two separate, seemingly hermetically sealed chambers.
Instead of open space, it was claustrophobia-inducing, and probably contributed to some of the high tensions and emotions in the House near the end of the session.
Finally, let’s close with evidence that state government can get things right, if you give it enough time: During the session, I got a call from a reader complaining that he was turned away from a handicapped parking space on the Capitol grounds despite having a state Disabled Veteran license plate.The reader said he had let his handicapped parking placard lapse, since in order to qualify for a Disabled Veteran plate, one must be a military veteran with a 100 percent total and permanent service-connected disability.
However, under state law, the Disabled Veteran plate is considered a vanity plate, not valid for parking in handicapped spaces. (I think the preferred term is mobility-impaired spaces.)
Fortunately, even as he was expressing his outrage to me, a bill was making its way through the Legislature to rectify this obvious oversight (HB 2036).
Justice signed the bill into law on the last night of the regular session, and effective May 26, drivers with Disabled Veteran plates will be authorized to park in mobility-impaired spaces.
Kudos to bill co-sponsors Delegates Roy Cooper, R-Summers (who has introduced versions of the bill for the past couple of sessions); Jeffrey Pack, R-Raleigh; and Ruth Rowan, R-Hampshire.