Leave it to West Virginia to turn a pandemic into a pandumbic.
With its isolated location, lack of major metropolitan areas and nonexistent international travel, West Virginia had every advantage to ride through the pandemic relatively unscathed but blew it all in recent days by flouting the basics of controlling the spread of COVID-19, particularly through social distancing and wearing facemasks.
After pleading for weeks for residents to voluntarily wear face coverings, Gov. Jim Justice on Monday ordered masks worn in public indoor settings and spent the remainder of the week pleading with people to actually follow the executive order.
As noted here, West Virginians have been hardheaded before when it came to public health issues, such as mandatory seatbelts and indoor smoking bans.
While there might have been some partisanship in both issues, it was nothing like the blatant partisan politics of today’s anti-maskers.
No one saw the smoking ban as a plot to defeat President George Bush or believed mandatory seatbelt laws were intended to embarrass President Bill Clinton.
Yet, somehow in the minds of some, employing reasonable measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 is some kind of plot to undermine President Donald Trump’s re-election bid.
That has extended to management of certain bars and restaurants that have deliberately flaunted the mask requirement, as if they can pick and choose which public health regulations they will follow.
As we’ve seen in Texas, Arizona and Florida and are beginning to see here, pretending COVID-19 is a liberal plot or a media conspiracy does not lessen its impact or make it disappear. The virus does not care whether you believe it’s real or its seriousness exaggerated.
Justice has seemed exasperated at times recently with his inability to persuade certain segments of the population to take the pandemic seriously.
However, like Trump, Justice has been part of the problem, downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic at times, and, like Trump, failing to show leadership by wearing masks in public.
When he finally acceded to put on a mask Monday, Justice’s unique technique — putting it on over the eyes, like a blindfold, and then pulling it down — and the fact the mask was upside down would suggest the governor does not regularly wear a mask, as he is calling on others to do.
Unfortunately, as we’re seeing in other states, once you realized you’ve screwed up — by reopening too quickly or failing to enforce reasonable preventive measures — with this virus, it’s too late to put the genie back in the bottle.
Justice’s COVID-19 briefings have been had more and more of political flavor over time.
Whether berating reporters, criticizing Democratic gubernatorial opponent Ben Salango, praising Trump or reminding viewers of what a good job he’s doing, Justice’s briefings have increasingly veered away from providing facts and expert recommendations for addressing the pandemic.
For one reader, Justice crossed the line on Monday, when he said, “I love our president and I love all the great stuff he’s doing, and I hope and pray he’s reelected.”
As the reader noted, the Ethics Act prohibits use of public resources for private or political gain for oneself or others.
Previously, the Ethics Commission sanctioned then-Kanawha County Prosecutor Bill Charnock for using a state-issued computer in at least three different campaigns and former Ravenswood Mayor Michael Ihle for using his city-issued cellphone in his legislative campaign.
The briefings, which air on West Virginia Public Television and YouTube, require a significant setup of equipment and a small army of staffers to produce.
Whether Justice’s use of the briefings for political purposes rises to the level of an Ethics Act violation will be up to others to determine.
I’ve been remiss in getting around to looking at January-April lobbyist expenditure reports.
According to disclosures filed with the Ethics Commission, total spending during the period was $361,804, which as I’ll explain directly, is somewhat inflated. (During the same period in 2019, the total was $291,026.)
West Virginia Coal Association lobbyists Bill Raney and Chris Hamilton had combined expenditures of $11,754.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Coal Association would spend more than double that amount in one night for its annual legislative reception, usually at the Civic Center.
I’m old enough to remember when the association also operated the Coal Suite, a hospitality suite in a downtown hotel where legislators could go any hours of the day or night for food, beverages (soft and adult) and various diversions.
(As a freshmen general assignment reporter, I once inadvertently found myself in the Coal Suite. During an evening out drinking with a buddy from the Register-Herald, who was in town covering the Legislature, he advised at closing time that he knew a place where we could get a nightcap.
I seem to recall that, in addition to a bar and buffet area, the suite was equipped with pinball and video games, card tables and TVs. I also recall that once it was known I worked for the Gazette, we were shown the door.)
This year, there was no lavish Coal Association reception and most of the comparatively minuscule spending went to provide legislative lunches at the Capitol, frequently partnering to hold what was called the Coal Caucus and Energy Forum.
A check of IRS 990 forms shows that, like the industry it represents, the Coal Association is in rapid decline.
In 2018, the Coal Association had revenue of $1.728 million, with $1.442 million from membership dues and $275,664 in revenue from meetings. (Presumably, the annual symposium in Charleston and annual meeting at The Greenbrier.)
That’s down 42% from 2008, when the Coal Association had revenue of $3.008 million and took in $2.428 million from membership dues and $579,697 in meetings revenue.
(2018 was actually an improvement over 2017, when the Coal Association had revenue of $1.671 million, including $1.415 million in membership dues and $239,725 from meetings.)
So, as the Coal Association fades away as a big legislative spender, what lobbying group was dominant during the 2020 regular session? AARP. (Full disclosure, I am a member.)
According to Angela Vance’s disclosure, AARP West Virginia spent $135,615 during the reporting period.
That’s somewhat misleading since $111,230 of that went for advertising meant to influence the Legislature (mainly for passage of a pharmaceutical pricing transparency bill).
AARP spent $20,944 on group entertainment, and while the organization hosted its traditional last Friday of the session evening buffet March 6, most of that spending was in the form of sponsorship of events put on by others, including the Charleston Area Alliance, the West Virginia Press Association, and the secretary of state’s office, a very astute way to extend the association’s influence.
Lobbyist expenditures are only a portion of AARP’s presence at the Capitol, where among other things, the association sponsors a broadcast booth.
Who would have thought? Coal is no longer king at the state Legislature, but senior citizens are, although for all the fine things AARP does, I’m convinced it’s a front for selling insurance to us oldsters.
The only other lobbyist reporting spending in excess of $10,000 was Andrew Walters with the state AFL-CIO.
The bulk of that was for weekly House and Senate luncheons during the session, all catered by Sam’s Uptown Café. However, it also includes the costs of public officials who attended the AFL-CIO reception Jan. 29.
That in itself is not notable, although many organizations and associations have moved away from expensive receptions over the years. What caught my eye is that Walters listed attendees at the reception.
As you might imagine, a labor union reception drew a crowd of politicians that was predominately, but not exclusively, Democratic.
At least five Republicans — including some way out there right wingers — broke bread and tossed back a few with their brothers in organized labor: Sens. Mike Azinger, R-Wood; John Pitsenbarger, R-Nicholas; and Delegates Joe Jeffries, R-Putnam; Patrick McGeehan, R-Hancock; and Tony Paynter, R-Wyoming.
Have to admire the hutzpah to go to a reception hosted by a group of individuals whose issues you regularly or consistently oppose. However, it’s also a refreshing reminder of the days back when the Legislature wasn’t so sharply divided, and Ds and Rs socialized with each other after the workday was done.
Finally, regarding last week’s item about Secretary of State Mac Warner raising issues with overvoting on absentee ballots in the primary election (presumably to temper enthusiasm for widespread vote-by-mail in the general election), a reader pointed out that overvoting is an old-school means to avoid ballot tampering.
Back in the day, she said, if one could not bring oneself to vote for either (or any) of the candidates for a particular office, one would fill in all the boxes to assure that an unscrupulous poll worker could not come in after the fact and fill in blank races on ballots for a particular slate.
In Cabell County, that would particularly seem to explain overvoting in levy elections. If one were uncertain whether to support or oppose a county levy, it is reasonable to assume they wouldn’t want someone making that decision for them, even if the actual likelihood of ballot tampering is remote.
Mask up, Mountaineers!