In a speech that attempted to make up for a lack of new initiatives with unbridled (and probably unrealistic) enthusiasm, hyperbole and sheer length of duration, Gov. Jim Justice’s fourth State of the State address Wednesday night was, disappointingly, his most conventional.
Speaking from a podium on press row in the House chamber, rather than from the speaker’s podium, as is traditional, Justice managed to produce a few props and a few folksy anecdotes.
He used an illustration of a rocket ship (reflecting his pledge in his first State of the State address to take the state on a economic rocket ship ride) and one of its replacement symbols: a lightning bolt drawing to reflect that the economic growth will not be a straight-line upward, but a series of ups and downs, including the current slowdown in the economy.
He had Division of Highways workers walk down the aisles of the House chamber handing out reflective vests for legislators to wear (on temporary loan only) as he touted the latest round of Roads to Prosperity bond sales.
Justice also relied on a surefire applause point, introducing state Medal of Honor recipient Woody Williams.
Beyond that, Justice’s address followed longstanding, and ever-dull, conventions.
Not unexpectedly in an election year, the address often had the tone of a campaign speech, with Justice making a rose-colored proclamation that the state economy is strong, despite what he said is a 25-year low for severance tax collection, as natural gas and coal prices and production have bottomed out.
“The state of our state is strong, and it is getting stronger every day,” he said in a speech frequently full of bluster and contradiction.
Justice, for instance, praised Attorney General Patrick Morrisey for backing state legislation that would attempt to prevent residents from being denied health care coverage because of preexisting conditions while failing to point out that Morrisey is party to a federal lawsuit to overturn preexisting condition protections in the Affordable Care Act.
Likewise, he seemed to pin the state’s future on a series of seemingly long shots: He touted futuristic technology to turn unmarketable coal seams into carbon fiber, as well as hyping West Virginia University’s chances to become the research center for the Virgin Hyperloop, a technology that he said will allow people to be whisked around in underground pods at speeds in excess of 600 mph. (Personally, thanks, but no thanks.)
Justice also spoke as if Donald Trump‘s seemingly dead $2 trillion infrastructure plan is imminent, saying, “It is going to happen.”
Justice said he is also trying to convince Trump to move federal agencies to West Virginia, on the grounds that the state has totally changed its image during his first three years in office.
“We have changed ourselves from a state that was backwards, and having a tough time, dingy and dark,” Justice said, despite having earlier admonished a state Corrections Academy class for giving Nazi salutes in an official graduation photo.
“In my world, there is no place for hate, and there’s no place for anti-Semitism,” Justice said.
When he got around to the few legislative initiatives outlined in the more than one-hour, 15-minute quasi-filibuster of an address, Justice seemed comparatively tepid.
On rolling back the personal property taxes on business equipment and inventory, he said, “I don’t want anyone to doubt that I would like it gone — at least, gone in time.”
Not exactly the bold call for immediately ending the inventory tax that the Manufacturers’ Association was probably hoping to hear.
Justice’s call for creating an intermediate appeals court, another longtime wish-list item for state business interests, was almost an afterthought, coming after telling the growing-restless audience at 8:17 p.m., “We’re in the homestretch now.”
That was after he had announced plans to establish a Narcotics Intelligence Unit to combat the flow of illegal drugs into the state, playing tough guy by warning any out-of-state drug dealers who, by chance, might have tuned in to his address, “We are going to bust your ass. That’s all there is to it.”
At least give credit to Justice for trying to make the dull exercise of State of the State addresses a little bit entertaining.
With this being the 31st State of the State address I’ve covered, most have been eminently forgettable.
Yes, there was Gaston Caperton’s 1995 address, which brought a gasp from the crowd when he pulled a handgun out of the podium to illustrate the need for legislation to ban firearms from public school property.
Otherwise, State of the State addresses follow a rather dry template of recitation of the past year’s accomplishments (or perceived accomplishments), followed by a laundry list of issues still facing the state, along with legislative proposals aimed at addressing those issues.
Although Justice has moved closer to conventionality with each of his four speeches, working last night with what appeared to be at least a written outline of a text, it still takes a certain amount of audacity to work without a net, giving a mostly extemporaneous speech in front of several hundred people and a statewide viewing audience.
That being said, like election-year legislative sessions, Wednesday’s speech was mostly about avoiding giving election-year opponents much in the way of campaign fodder.