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Statehouse Beat: The real state of the Mountain State

Having sat through 31 State of the State addresses, I can reliably say in nearly all of them, the governor declares, “The state of our state is strong,” or words to that effect — regardless of whether there’s any supporting evidence for the claim or, often, even when there’s evidence to the contrary.

Gov. Jim Justice’s interminably long (82-minute) address added a new dimension, not only proposing a relatively limited legislative agenda, but making a flight into a fanciful wish list of things that could be, might be, or that we wish they would be.

In Justice’s world, coal can easily be converted to carbon fiber, investors will turn to West Virginia to develop technology to shoot people at high speeds from city to city in little pods, and Donald Trump is a competent president who will be able to enact his long-dormant multitrillion-dollar infrastructure plan even in the face of a trillion-dollar and growing federal deficit.

(Justice stopped short of announcing groundbreaking for a factory that will build flying cars that convert themselves into briefcases upon arrival at work, but we can assume that might have come at the 90-minute mark had the speech gone any longer.)

Those fanciful claims are the State of the State equivalent of saying, “Things will be great just as soon as I win the lottery jackpot.”

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By their nature, State of State addresses tend to be overly rosy, and there’s no requirement that governors take truth serum before ascending to the podium (or in Justice’s case, not ascending).

However, to use the governor’s vernacular, the speech Wednesday ignored the Frankenstein monster in the room.

A brutally honest State of State would have gone like this: “Folks, you’ll hear a lot of numbers in tonight’s speech, but only one matters: 1.7. Since the last time I addressed a joint session of the Legislature, the state’s population has fallen below the 1.8 million mark, dropping to its lowest point since the early 1930s.

“Our best and brightest young people are fleeing the state for better opportunities elsewhere. Those remaining are older and are aging out. Our communities are devastated by the opioid epidemic, and despite our best efforts, our public schools continue to underachieve, failing to prepare many of our students for college or career.

“We’ve clung too long to extractive industries that have exploited our people and our state for generations, at the detriment of building a diversified 21st-century economy. We have 20th-century infrastructure that is crumbling, and lack much of the 21st-century infrastructure needed to compete in a modern economy.

“Folks, 1.7 million is a flashing warning light. Our rocket-ship of a state is in a spiral dive, and we don’t have long to figure out how to pull ourselves out of it. We need to figure out why people and businesses don’t want to come to West Virginia, and why those that are here are leaving the state, and we must take corrective measures immediately.

“Fortunately, we have small pockets of prosperity in the state, in north-central West Virginia and the Eastern Panhandle, and we need to ascertain what those areas are doing right and how we can translate those successes into other parts of our state.

“We’ve only got 60 days to start pulling out of this death spiral, and we can’t waste time on bills that perpetuate our image nationally as being backward, closed-minded, anti-intellectual and anti-progress. Any issues that divide us, that pit faction against faction, that would make us look like laughingstocks in the national media, or would attempt to deny full rights of citizenship to any of us must be set aside to address the core issue of why the state of our state is in peril.”

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Much was made of the fact that, during the address, Justice managed to butcher the names of several people he introduced, most notably state Teacher of the Year Jennifer Schwertfeger.

While Justice did not have a prepared text or teleprompters, he did follow a multi-page outline, which we presume highlighted topics of discussion, and included names of individuals to be introduced at various points in the address.

Many were incredulous that Justice apparently was not provided with phonetic spellings of those names. Surely, former minor media mogul and current Justice advisor Bray Cary knows to provide phonetic breakdowns for his on-air talent.

It was embarrassing for Justice in one breath to discuss how important education is to the state’s future, and in the next, to act like he was completely unfamiliar with the practice of putting letters together to form words and names.

I suspect it’s a factor of cavalierly treating the office of governor as some sort of part-time gig.

Past governors have put a great deal of time and effort into writing, rewriting and rehearsing their State of State addresses. Part of that rehearsal process includes practicing difficult-to-pronounce words and names to avoid bouts of vocal stumblitis.

(Gaston Caperton actually rehearsed his speeches in House chambers, until 1990, when the Daily Mail’s Jack Deutsch somehow discovered that the acoustics from the chamber traveled perfectly into an adjacent women’s restroom. On State of the State day that year, the Daily Mail had a preview story that highlighted each and every proposal Caperton would make that evening, under the pretense that Deutsch had somehow been able to review a draft of the speech. No governor has rehearsed in chambers since.)

The point being, governors have taken their State of the State addresses seriously, and put considerable effort into them. They didn’t roll in on a Wednesday afternoon, give it a quick run-through, and then wing it Wednesday evening.

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After 35 years, uber-lobbyist Nelson Robinson has turned in his termination notice to the state Ethics Commission.

Like many legislators from both sides of the aisle who are not seeking reelection this year, the acrimony, tribalism and lack of collegiality at the statehouse in recent years hastened Robinson’s decision to retire.

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Speaking of retirement, Greg Gray, the longtime House clerk and parliamentarian who was forced to retire when Republicans took control of the House in 2015, advises that he recently got a call from incoming Virginia House of Delegates Clerk Suzette Denslow offering him the position of House parliamentarian in that state under the new leadership of incoming House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn.

(In the 2019 elections, my native state completed its metamorphosis from a red state to a blue commonwealth, with Democrats holding all statewide elected offices, and taking control of both houses of the General Assembly.)

Gray said that while he was flattered that House Democrats thought enough of his expertise to offer him the position, with a generous salary, he said he opted not to come out of retirement and move (at least part-time) to Richmond.

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I’ve raised concerns in the past that the new, one-off nonpartisan elections of Supreme Court justices would let people win multi-candidate races with comparatively small percentages of the vote, but a bill to mandate a run-off election in November if no Supreme Court candidate receives 40 percent of the vote in the May election has gotten blowback as the “Tim Armstead Incumbency Protection Act” (HB 2008).

The theory being that in a one-off, multi-candidate race, former longtime Supreme Court justice Richard Neely has statewide name recognition equal to or better than Armstead, the former House speaker who was appointed to the high court in September 2018 after the House GOP coup. Armstead won a special election that November to fill the remaining two years in the term of former Justice Menis Ketchum.

So Neely might well outpoll Armstead in a race with many candidates. But a runoff election between the two would allow conservative support to coalesce around Armstead.

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The latest incarnation of legislation to eliminate the state’s $12 million annual subsidy to greyhound racing purse funds was introduced in the Senate Friday, with President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, as the lead sponsor (SB285).

Meanwhile, the national anti-greyhound racing organization, Grey2K USA — which is planning a major lobbying push for the legislation this session — has lined up an impressive list of 76 individuals, organizations and editorial boards to date that are endorsing the end of greyhound racing in West Virginia.

Those supporters run (pardon the pun) the gamut from humane and animal rights organizations to the right-wing Americans for Prosperity-West Virginia, which generally opposes government spending in all forms, and especially government subsidies.

Action on the bill should begin this week.

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Finally, the 2020 legislative session has gotten underway with some members missing in action. Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, is recuperating after he was injured in a car accident in Charleston just before the session started, and I don’t believe Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, has arrived in Charleston yet.

However, no legislator has a more justifiable reason for his absence than Delegate Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, who is recovering from surgery after donating a kidney to his sister.

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

Funerals for Monday, January 27, 2020

Davis, Valerie - 11 a.m., Cunningham Memorial Park, St. Albans.

Hamrick, Leonard - 1 p.m., Waters Funeral Chapel, Summersville.

Hughes Jr., Denver - 1 p.m., Curry Funeral Home, Alum Creek.

Keen, Cora - 2 p.m., Tyler Mountain Memory Gardens, Cross Lanes.

Lazear, Elizabeth - 7 p.m., Keller Funeral Home, Dunbar.

Masters, Delores - 1 p.m., Glen Ferris Apostolic Church, Glen Ferris.

Milroy, Miller - 11 a.m., Simons-Coleman Funeral Home, Richwood.

Petro, Edith - 11 a.m., Cunningham-Parker-Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Phelps, Herbert - 2 p.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Hurricane.

Stanley, Gary - 1 p.m., Pryor Funeral Home, East Bank.

Stewart, Donna - 1 p.m., First United Methodist Church, South Charleston.

Walker, Iva - 1 p.m., Roush Funeral Home, Ravenswood.

Wilkinson, Catharine - Noon, Raynes Funeral Home, Eleanor Chapel.

Williams, Joseph - 3 p.m., Tyler Mountain Memory Gardens, Cross Lanes.