Republican political operative Greg Thomas has a pending appointment to the state Educational Broadcasting Authority, raising concern that Gov. Jim Justice intends to stack the authority, which is the governing body for West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with political conservatives.
Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, said Thomas’ pending appointment, which members of the Senate Confirmations Committee received notice of via email on Friday, “stood out like a sore thumb.”
“You’ve got an outwardly partisan political operative being nominated to a position that doesn’t call for that at all,” Baldwin said Monday of Thomas’ appointment.
Baldwin said he also is concerned that Thomas has no applicable professional background for serving on the authority, which, according to its website, “sets policy, oversees budgets and ensures West Virginia Public Broadcasting remains a vital resource for education, news and public affairs, emergency services, and economic development.”
Thomas, who has frequently worked for former coal executive Don Blankenship and has worked for other Republicans, including unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Bill Maloney and Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., did not respond to a request for comment.
Baldwin said Thomas’ appointment raises concern. During the most recent legislative session, the GOP-controlled Senate tried to eliminate funding for the authority in the 2021-22 state budget.
More troubling, he said, is that the governor is in a position to fill seven of the eight appointed seats on the authority, with five current members serving expired terms and with Maryanne Reed’s term set to expire on June 30. There is one vacancy on the authority, with the death of longtime authority member Ann Brotherton in September.
Said Baldwin, “From this past session, it was pretty clear that the Senate Finance chairman does not care for the EBA at all, or for Public Broadcasting at all, and tried to defund Public Broadcasting,” Baldwin said.
In normal sessions, Public Broadcasting airs “The Legislature Today,” a half-hour telecast weekday evenings updating the day’s activities at the Legislature, and featuring interviews from legislators from both sides of the aisle. Because of the pandemic, the program aired on a limited basis during the 2021 regular session.
Baldwin said he was surprised by how many people told him they missed seeing the nightly broadcasts.
“I heard from a lot of people who would say, ‘I always tune in for ‘The Legislature Today,’” he said.
During the regular session, Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, was critical of what he considered biased coverage of legislation that he and Justice backed that would have lowered state income tax rates, but would have required significant increases in sales and other consumption taxes.
Tarr put out a Senate-produced video criticizing state broadcasters in general, and the West Virginia Broadcasters Association in particular, for airing public-service ads pointing out that the plan would require implementing the largest sales tax hike in state history.
At roughly the same time, the Senate passed its version of the 2021-22 state budget plan, a bill that eliminated funding for the authority. Ultimately, the version of the budget bill that passed the Legislature restored $3.77 million of the authority’s $3.8 million budget.
In 2017, Justice also submitted a budget bill that zeroed out funding for the authority, but the Legislature that year ultimately fully funded Public Broadcasting.
The governor also has been critical of news media coverage of his plan to lower income taxes and shift the tax burden to sales taxes.
When asked to provide a list of recent gubernatorial appointments to the authority, Justice press secretary Nathan Takitch emailed a list of current authority members. He did not respond to a second request to confirm Thomas’ appointment to the authority or to respond to concern that the governor might stack the authority.
Baldwin said he has been advised that a second authority appointment is in the pipeline, Charleston lawyer and U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Danielle Waltz, who has represented the state Business and Industry Council previously.
Baldwin said he is concerned that the governor will stack authority membership in an attempt to accomplish what Senate Republicans failed to do during the regular session.
“I’m very concerned, after last session showed they would be happy to defund West Virginia Public Broadcasting,” he said.
Authority Chairman Bill File, whose term on the authority expired in 2016, could not be reached for comment. Under state law, appointees to state boards and commissions continue to serve after their terms have expired until their replacements are appointed.